Cultivated by a committed group of documentary filmmakers in Missoula, Montana, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival has established itself as a serious cultural asset and industry event in America’s Mountain West region. Its non-profit umbrella organisation, The Big Sky Film Institute, operates a year-round screening series, provides fiscal sponsorship for area filmmakers, and oversees an award-winning production company. The festival itself stretches across ten days, and audiences have been known to crowd the thousand-seat main venue, the city’s historic Wilma Theater. For this is a festival that knows its base: a progressive-minded university town with a conservationist streak. Much of the work shown here addresses social and environmental issues, focusing on characters and events from a position of journalistic inquiry. This year, Big Sky screened 144 features and shorts from the U.S. and abroad. The top prize went to the spectacularly photographed Chasing Ice (Jeff Orlowski, 2011), which follows an award-winning National Geographic photographer in his quest to document climate change.

In recent years, Big Sky has also nurtured an interest in films that consider music and musicians, as well as incorporated live performance within the program. Many screenings are preceded by performances by local artists, and this year, an ensemble provided beautifully subtle accompaniment to silent classics Manhatta (Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, 1921) and Berlin: die Sinphonie der Grosstadt (Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Walter Ruttman, 1927). Perhaps it’s odd to begin with these nearly century-old mainstays, but they felt remarkably alive — to the credit of both their visionary directors, as well as their musical collaborators. The same evening, filmmaker Andy Smetanka presented two silent super-8 homages to the local landscape: To the West (2012, world premiere), a vibrant in-camera compilation of horizon lines and sunsets, and City in Shadows (2011), a luminous silhouette animation. Collectively, this program and its packed audience was a testament to the power of documentary as experience, both visual and aural.

Andrew Bird: Fever Year

Strand, Sheeler, Ruttman and Smetanka use the camera to conjure performances from their surroundings, but far more common is the movie that circles a subject performing at its centre. Performance in documentary is a tired (if historic) concern related to authenticity; documentation of performance serves the utilitarian function of record for the performer. How, then, to translate performance into a cinematic experience — and to what end?

Access is surely the most common motivator — in short, the fan movie. One of the loveliest of these screened at Big Sky this year was Andrew Bird: Fever Year (Xan Aranda, 2011). Set to the elaborate strings and vocals of its namesake, the film consists of many beauty shots of its exceptionally talented subject, in deep concentration as he records and performs in concert. In spite of this intimate view of Bird’s creative process, however, which incorporates his own ruminations about his practice and what drives him, proximity doesn’t lead to enlightenment. In the end we are left with pretty music, pretty man, pretty pictures of an artist-hero, the lone wandering genius. Presented in a vacuum, Bird becomes an archetype.

Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present

Something related is at play in Matthew Akers’ Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present (2011), which arrived fresh from premieres at Sundance and Berlin, director and HBO distribution rep in tow. A highly polished, utterly absorbing story about performance artist Abramovic, the film depicts the preparation and execution of a new piece for her retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art last year. Although surrounding her with people — curators, collaborators, assistant, gallerist, former lover, thousands of museumgoers, and, of course, the film crew — Akers, too, presents his subject in a vacuum. This vacuum is historical and cultural: save for her relationship with the artist Uday, the film forgoes locating her within any creative milieu related to discipline, geography, or time period. As authoritative voices lay the praise on thick, exhilaration mounts, and we are gratified in the sustained climax of the performance itself. Breathless, tears in their eyes, the audience — both in the gallery and the theatre — is awed. Canonical machinations aside, the great contribution of Marina Abramovic is in making the concept of performance art credible, and palatable, to a mass audience.

Greatest Hits 1975-1980

These dazzling aesthetic and narrative qualities are completely absent from Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong’s Greatest Hits 1975-1980 and Roots of Hardcore (both 1975-1980), part of their Nightclubbing compilation series and a special screening at Big Sky this year. Recorded in analogue colour and black and white at CBGB, Danceteria and other venues during the heyday of the New York punk rock scene, these video mixtapes have sparse titles and minimal editing. Rarely is there more than one camera, which is set directly in front or just to the side of the stage. Steady zooms and pans emphasise the bodies and gestures of the performers — The Heartbreakers, Blondie, Dead Boys, the mesmerising Vanessa Briscoe of Pylon, to name a few. Captured in their element, assembled end-to-end almost haphazardly, they communicate not only a sound, but a time, a place, and a collective kind of energy. Ivers and Armstrong are superfans whose deep respect for their material is evident in their formal approach: a simple, intuitive structure that allows the subject to describe its own context. The urgency here feels inherent, not constructed.

Roots of Hardcore

Briar March’s short film Smoke Songs (2011) calls attention to the legacy of punk rock in the shape of the band Blackfire, a trio of mixed-race Native American musicians who consider music an explicitly political, urgent social act. Following the group on its tour of performances and workshops for teens in their home state of Arizona, they spread a message of indigenous empowerment, human rights and resistance to social and environmental exploitation. The three members, also siblings, have been playing music around the world since 1989, but have you heard them? March’s film is observation as amplification. She and Blackfire deftly demonstrate how identity is inseparable from art when a representative voice is at stake.

Smoke Songs

Identity, politics, society — context can be complicated, of course, and messy. There were films that sought to expand our understanding of the artist’s role in the world, and these were not stories of heroes, but of tricksters. Both Barbara Kopple’s Shut Up and Sing (2006), screened as part of a retrospective, and Joe Berlinger’s Under African Skies (2011), which closed out the festival, portray musicians who become mired in controversy through political transgression, how they choose to handle criticism and threats, and then ultimately process their experiences. Kopple (Harlan County USA, 1976; American Dream, 1990) has long understood the way crisis can shed light on humanity and the social order. Her film is belly-of-the-beast verité that follows country band the Dixie Chicks through a fascinating and frightening fiasco after a negative comment made by lead singer Natalie Maines about then-president George W. Bush. Their fan base rapidly dissolving and careers suddenly in question, the group considers their options: concession, or reinvention? Politics are certainly central here — free speech, pacifism, feminism — but this story is also about what happens when popular icons decline to be a part of a popular narrative.

Under African Skies

With the Dixie Chicks, this rejection of conformity is painless for the left, but the soul searching is necessarily deeper in the case of Paul Simon. By travelling to South Africa to record with local musicians in 1985, Simon violated a United Nations cultural boycott intent on starving and shaming the apartheid regime. Filmed on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the resultant album Graceland, Under African Skies and its many interview subjects reflect on the experience of recording, producing, touring and listening to its music. Berlinger (Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, 2004; Crude, 2009) structures the movie around Simon’s meeting with Dali Tambo, founder of Artists Against Apartheid, who had initially condemned his actions. The creative tensions and political backlash surrounding Graceland, however much in the past, are still palpable in the voices and expressions of the individuals on display. Aside from a spurious insinuation that the album’s use of sampling and remixing constitutes proto-hip hop (1) — which, unfortunately, resonates with the criticism that Simon “stole” from black musicians — the film elegantly communicates the complexity of creativity in a world that is anything but neutral. (2)


In all their differences, these films are united by their subjects’ profound desire to connect with an audience. How do you garner one, and develop and sustain its investment in the experience you create? How do you challenge without alienating, please without pandering? It’s in this sense that the situation of the performer is the situation of the filmmaker. And, in our age of private viewing, where the centralised cinema event called a festival has become its own kind of performance, we might include the festival director as well. He, too, is at his best with a bit of trickster in him.

Big Sky Documentary Film Festival
17-26 February 2012
Festival website: http://bigskyfilmfest.org


  1. Berlinger reiterates this claim more explicitly in a recent interview. http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/sundance-joe-berlinger-talks-going-under-african-skies-with-paul-simon-his-academy-award-nomination-changes-to-oscar-voting-rules 
  2. It’s significant to note that Under African Skies was commissioned by Paul Simon and Sony Music, who will be distributing it as part of an anniversary box set of the original Graceland recordings. As it happens, Andrew Bird: Fever Year was commissioned by its subject as well.

About The Author

Vera Brunner-Sung is a filmmaker. She has lectured on nonfiction and experimental film at the University of California, San Diego, and currently teaches at the University of Montana.

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