when the dust clears

Words about and images of matters political, social, and military

Big Sky

with 4 comments

Missoula, MT, 14 February 2010

After a couple of warm, gray, and mud-sloppy days, the weather here is closer to what I imagined it would be—dry, sunny, and 24 degrees. The ducks in the Rattlesnake Creek, which runs beneath the diner where I’m eating breakfast (two scrambled eggs and pancakes), don’t seem to mind the cold—it is Montana, after all. They glide slowly upstream for a few feet, then turn around and float back down.

A few days ago, a young Bangladeshi man in Old Dhaka held a straight razor to my neck, scraping away millimeters of hair with the skill of an old timer. The kid’s own hair was immaculately styled, and he had a beautiful smile. His co-worker in the tiny storefront barbershop, a genuine old timer, ordered cups of strong tea sweetened and whitened with condensed milk for me and my girlfriend. Neighborhood kids lined up to watch my shave like it was a spontaneous performance staged for their benefit.

Today, after a sprint through New York, I’m in Missoula, a city of 50,000 plus. There’s so, so much space and quiet and stillness compared to Dhaka,  the city of 15 million where I spent the last three weeks (and to which I return in four days). There are some stately historic buildings here—the Missoula County Courthouse, the Wilma Building, the old Milwaukee Road Depot—but architecture isn’t the town’s most notable feature. The nondescript one- and two-story buildings are just bland foreground for the surrounding mountains—Mount Sentinel, Blue Mountain, University Mountain, and many others. They’re not as impressive as the Grand Tetons (most are less than half the height) but I find them … soothing, reassuring after so much concentrated city time.

I didn’t come here for the sights and lack of sounds, as much as I’m enjoying them. I’m at the Big Sky Film Festival to screen Full Disclosure and to watch other documentaries. Full Disclosure screens tonight at 9:45. From the emptiness of the streets after 10PM, I gather that this is not a nightlife town, but I’m hoping folks will come out anyway. Presidents Day is tomorrow and they can (presumably) sleep late.

I have seen three films in two days: Sergio, the opening night extravaganza, Trail of Tears, and 9500 Liberty.

9500 Liberty is the cinematic fruit of a serious commitment and investment by filmmakers Annabel Park and Eric Byler. A couple of years ago, I was pitching story ideas to the Washington Post’s “Outlook” section. The editor suggested I take a look at the video section of the WP website, which featured a piece by Park and Byler about the battle between long-time—and overwhelmingly white—residents of Virginia’s Prince William County, and, ostensibly, undocumented workers. 9500 the feature-length doc is built on that clip plus an enormous amount of footage collected over years.

The filmmakers quickly uncover the nativist and profoundly anti-Latino, anti-brown currents within the “Help Save Manassas” campaign, which pushes the Board of County Supervisors to pass an ordinance requiring police officers to question the immigration status of anyone they have “probable cause” to suspect is undocumented. But Park and Byler let the movement’s members speak for themselves—not just the scary racist zealots, but others moved by an inchoate fear of the changing character of their community, culturally as well as racially. The defenders of the Latino community stand out, as they should in my view, but so do HSM members who are gradually converted after their leader attacks the Chief of Police. The chief, a respected community leader, had the temerity (read: courage) to question both the feasibility of enforcing and the legality of the law. That marked him as a traitor—and a target for HSM. The portraits the filmmakers are complex, deep, and compassionate. 9500 may not be slick (and, really, who cares?) but it is a brilliant doc.

Sergio, a biopic directed by Greg Barker about the United Nations Secretary General’s man in Iraq, Sergio Vieira de Mello, killed in an August 2008 truck bombing, leans heavily on reenactments.  No footage exists of Vieira de Mello trapped under the slabs of concrete and rubble of what had been the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, yet the filmmakers decided to put this situation at the center of the story. So the frantic hours that two U.S. soldiers, Master Sergeant William von Zehle and Staff Sergeant Andre Valentine, spent picking and scratching their way toward Gil Loescher and Vieira de Mello, were reenacted on a Los Angeles set—by von Zehle and Valentine themselves.

Trail of Tears, directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho), is a film based on the Cherokee Nation’s decades-long battle with the U.S. government to keep their land and sovereignty against the inexorable push of white settlers into their territory. Archival footage not being an option, Eyre reenacted the entire story with a cast that includes amateur and professional Cherokee (and Cherokee-speaking) actors, Wes Studi being the most prominent of them all.

As a journalist—more accurately, a news guy who stumbled into film making—and a slavish devotee of the empirical, I distrust documentary reenactments. They can be compelling, engaging, and rooted in fact, but, to me, they’re more entertainment than documentation. To appreciate the films, I tried to view them as historical dramas, narrative features simply “inspired by events”. On that level, I enjoyed both, though Sergio veered too deeply into hero worship for my tastes. All this said, I’m trying to loosen my rigid views, given that all documentaries, even those assembled from verite footage and interviews, are simply interpretations of events and approximations of life. Integrity is what matters.

I must admit to playing hooky from the film fest for a big chunk of yesterday.  I took advantage of Montana’s spaciousness, breathable air, and the unseasonably warm temperature to run, an activity that’s hazardous in Dhaka because of the scary traffic and thick air. I stomped and splashed on the path along the Clark Fork River, managing to get both lost and unlost twice. My body wouldn’t let me play speedster—too out of shape and jet-lagged—so I concentrated on enjoying the scenery and not slipping on the slush. I watched the day transform even as it was ending. The setting sun brilliantly spotlighted patches of snow and brush on the mountains while the rest of the landscape, illuminated by light filtered through thick clouds, stayed gray.

I’m on deck for my performance this evening. I’m both nervous and excited.  Several of my New York friends have notified their Missoula comrades and urged them to come out. I emailed invitations to the heads of several student groups at the University of Montana, which is right across the river. We’ll see what happens.



Written by bxpnyc

2010/02/14 at 21:39

4 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. go brian go ! been thinking about you today hope it goes superdooperly well !!!!! fingers and toes and all other crossable things crossed : >
    ck and a


    2010/02/14 at 22:05

  2. What CK said… Here in Dhaka, everything that’s crossable is crossed! -E


    2010/02/15 at 03:44

  3. We’re rooting for you Brian. There’s many invisible seats back there, reaching to Dhaka!



    Shahidul Alam

    2010/02/15 at 03:48

  4. My dear friend im so excited for u and the film, i wish the best and look forward to seeing my dear friend.

    David Marino

    2010/02/15 at 19:56

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: