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  • Brandon MacMurray

Reviews from Big Sky Documentary Film Festival: Part 1

Updated: Mar 6

Welcome to our coverage of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. We at ShortStick see Big Sky as the kickoff to the 2024 (2025 Oscar) season for documentary shorts, so we knew it was a must for our coverage this year. The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival has two qualifying awards (Best Documentary Short and Best Mini-Doc) and at least one of its two qualifiers has gone to make shortlist five years straight.

2019: St. Louis Superman

2020: Colette

2021: Aguilas

2022: Shut Up and Paint

2023: Between Earth & Sky

This makes Big Sky one of the most predictive festivals for an early look at what contenders are in the running. Director of last years documentary short winner Between Earth & Sky, Andrew Nadkarni, joined the jury to choose Until He's Back as Best Documentary Short, qualifying it for the 2025 Oscars. The winner of best Mini-Doc Seat 31: Zooey Zephyr was chosen as the other qualifier. Only time will tell if the five year streak will extend into six with either of these two shorts. Our team got together and reviewed eleven of our favourites from the festival. Here are the first five of those reviews!

Kowloon! Dirs. Mona Xia, Erin Ramirez

Kowloon! gives us a behind the scenes look at the biggest Chinese restaurant in the US. Boasting a whopping 1200 seats today, the restaurant is a family business currently owned by the third generation of the Wong family.

Using a mix of archival footage and interviews, this documentary film takes us on the journey from the original 40-50 seats, then known as ‘The Mandarin House’, to 1958 when Madeline and Bill Wong bought the restaurant and renamed it to ‘Kowloon Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge’ through to present day where the restaurant feels like a whole ecosystem of guests dining and celebrating in the many themed rooms.

Perhaps more importantly though the documentary hones in on what it means to have a family business in practice. From helping their employees with down payments on a house or car purchases, to spending the holidays at work and missing yet another Christmas, it shows the highs and lows of what the Wong family has built over the years. Whether you are serving thousands of customers each year or just a handful, the idea of giving it everything you got for ‘The American Dream’ or just financial stability is something that likely resonates with a lot of viewers - and even if it doesn’t you are guaranteed to leave craving some delicious Chinese food!

Review by: Robin Hellgren

What the Hands Do, Dir. Bing Liu


Oscar nominated director Bing Liu’s (Minding the Gap) continues his ascent as one of the best young voices in documentary film making in his new documentary short film What the Hands Do, which profiles the adventurous rock climbers Mariana Mendoza and Miguel Casar. They see themselves as something like outsiders to the climbing community, but Casar knows that he felt like he was called to climb—that he always was a climber, and always will be a climber. Mendoza grew up in Mexico City, so she didn’t have access or ability to climb until she moved to the US on a student Visa and met Miguel, and even though there were years that they were not together they always had a connection, with each other, and with climbing.


There were high expectations on Mendoza and Casar in competitive climbing—and they start to wonder, is that why they climb? Or is it because they enjoy it, and the community that comes with it? At the start of their climbing careers, work and climbing were separate—Mendoza works for indigenous rights, for example, but would climb on Indigenous land without asking for permission (fittingly, the film opens with an acknowledgement of the Indigenous land on which it was shot). Casar works in education and wants to help people who have been pushed out of school or were incarcerated to reclaim authorship over their stories. When he goes climbing with his students, they sometimes get reminders of “who belongs” because they are not the status quo of the climbing gym. For these two, challenging policies and fighting for the unseen, unheard, and unacknowledged takes a lot of time and work, but climbing is always there for them in between.


When high performance climbing became too comfortable, Mendoza and Casar preferred to share climbing with friends. Acting as (one of) his own cinematographers, Liu’s kinetic outdoor photography beautifully captures the thrill of climbing alongside these adventurers. By always bringing the focus back to the climbers, rather than the climb itself, Liu steers the film away from a Free Solo-type thriller, and toward the sort of social commentary in which he has excelled in works like his co-directed America to Me. Mendoza and Casar know that the “dominant ideology” for climbers is focused on how fast, how tall, how hard—and that this exists in tension with who they are as people and climbers. Climbing—travel, gear, clothing (What the Hands Do is produced by the outdoor clothing brand Patagonia)—is expensive and limits the sport to a small number of people. 


These climbers want to create spaces for joy and community, they explain, because having a space in climbing didn’t feel right with who they are outside of climbing. They are trying to reshape the story of climbing by pushing against the barriers to collective liberation and allowing anyone—from anywhere—to join in with them to climb. Sometimes when you come to a rock that you think is impossible, Casar says, you have to build yourself up physically and emotionally. For these two, climbing can help create a world that they thought was not possible.

Review by: Joshua Hunt

Fratelli Carbonai, Dirs. Felix Bazalgette, Joshua Hughes

Charcoal burning is a manufacturer's work that has been done since the Iron Age. Even though diverse new technologies and industrial techniques have surged, the practice can still be seen in several locations, such as with the Fratelli Carbonai, in the Calabria region in Italy. The film follows a local family that has been doing the labor for several generations and is passed down from father to son. However, it narrates the story of Fofana, a Malian immigrant who is the first non-Calabrian to perform the charcoal-burning technique in that region. Ever since he immigrated, Fofana was welcomed by a traditional producer’s family who taught him the method, helping him to get his Italian passport and immigration status properly stated. 

Directed by Felix Bazalgette and Joshua Hughes, the film had its world premiere at the AFI Fest 2023. Fratelli Carbonai is very well-suited in portraying this story in a very intimate way. The cinematography, which is gorgeously crafted, sets the narrative tone and atmosphere using dust, smoke (both from cigarettes and charcoal burning), and snow to create textures establishing a proper aspect of that hard manual labor that it’s inherited. Besides being visually appealing and narratively engaging, the film approaches the current state of Italian politics contrasting with the derogatory speech given by Italy's Prime Minister, the far-right politician, Georgia Meloni. It is even stated by one of the family’s members how the Lega Nord, a far-right nationalist Italian party, overstates and blames the country’s internal problems onto immigrants, such as Fofana. 

Apart from the political attacks that Fofana has been targeted with by the new administration, the local charcoal community also acknowledges and understands how he suffers from being far from his family and friends. The interviews are done in a manner that differentiate themselves from the typical talking heads documentaries. The sound design has very impressive moments, such as the wood-cutting mashed into the score and how it stops when Fofana drops a box, all of this works to help to improve the immersivity of the experience. The approach and discussion brought here is reminiscent of the topics discussed by American-Calabrian filmmaker, Jonas Carpignano who portrayed the region in his Calabrian trilogy. It is also close in approach to his documentary Mediterranea, which also narrates the immigration of an African man to Italy. Both works discuss the xenophobia suffered by the immigrants in Italian society and how they are mostly and almost exclusively seen as only a labor force and not citizens that deserve to have their rights guaranteed. 

Fratelli Carbonai is impressive in its cinematography and sound design, but also highly engaging narratively. The viewer spends 17 minutes immersed in that community and recognizes the political, social, and emotional aspects of those characters. A production that will be released soon under the New Yorker banner and deserves to be seen.

Review by: Pedro Lima

Frontier Town, Dirs. Tom Tennant, Theo Tennant

In Frontier Town we get to follow three residents of the town Fairbourne on the west coast of Wales. The town was constructed just barely above sea level and it is protected by an aging sea wall that the local council have stated will not be maintained beyond 2054. This of course means that all the local residents will need to be evicted from their homes and relocated.

This documentary’s construction reminds me of that of a song, with many aspects running in parallel. We have the people who are being interviewed front and center depicting the melody of the tune. Their colorful characters and life stories paint a wonderfully human and melancholic main storyline as they share their thoughts about past, present and future. Looming behind the scenes we have a baseline of footage from the surrounding nature. Set to an equally worrisome and fitting soundtrack this serves as a layer of atmosphere throughout the film, crescendoing towards the third act. Lastly we get some top notes of footage sprinkled throughout. Such as talks of the political debate surrounding the town and what the decommissioning means for the residents, touching on the UK political climate and the historical lack of support that smaller communities have experienced. Another example of these top notes are shots of scientists in a lab, reenacting the town's defense against the forces of the sea in a controlled environment.

The film serves as a stark reminder that climate change is not something that will happen eventually, it is something that is having a real effect on people’s lives today. Not only because some repercussions are now beyond reversible, but also because of the knock on effect they create. We will see massive waves of climate refugees within our lifetime, and we need to figure out how to deal with that issue while we have the chance.

Review by: Robin Hellgren

Behind the Mask, Dir. Håvard Bustnes

“Everyone deserves to know”

The opening title cards to Behind The Mask explain that 1.8 million Muslim Uyghurs have been detained in internment camps in Xinjiang, China. It is widely said by various scholars, human rights organizations and governments that the abuses against the Uyghurs are considered to be crimes against humanity or even genocide. Abduweli Ayup, a professor in Linguistics was a victim of the abuse and torture as he was imprisoned for 15 months. He was granted asylum in Norway where he lives with his wife and two daughters, working to uncover facts about the internment camps and how they operate. 

While Behind the Mask could have easily been a documentary about the history of the Uyghur people and their persecution in China, the documentary quickly veers away from some basic background information on the topic and takes a more personal approach, diving into the family dynamics of Abduweli and how the experience of arrest and torture not only affected him but also his family around him. 

Behind the Mask is not only a look at confronting your abuser and past trauma but excels at showing the ripple effect and different ways it impacts those who love you as well. Abduweli has come in contact with a former prison guard for an internment facility and leaves his family to fly to Germany to meet this man face to face. The reactions from Abduweli’s family vary. From his wife who expresses her worry about opening old wounds, to his eldest daughter, Mesude, who has a panic attack in the wake of him leaving, bringing up painful memories of when she was six, having her father taken away. Lastly, his youngest daughter, who jokes she will miss her dad during the weekdays but not on the weekends where she can play on her iPad and forget he even exists. 

This documentary short offers an in depth look at Abduweli bravely facing his trauma. It shows the different triggers that make him uncomfortable and the general stress/anxiety leading up to, during and after his meeting with the former prison guard. The former prison guard offers a lot of insight. You can see he knows the system well, and at times can even predict what would have been done to Abduweli and why it was being done. “The Goal is to beat them psychologically” , “its better to kill 1000 innocent than to let one guilty go”. These quotes of sayings he was told from his superiors are harrowing as he describes the corrupt system of receiving rewards for getting people to break. 

“How long are we going to pay the price for this?”


Abduweli asks himself this upon his return. Although Behind the Mask ends with this open-ended question, the finality and steadfastness of family is gracefully shown. Mesude offers comfort to her father saying he is allowed to be angry and show emotion and that he is not alone in this. 

“It’s good for you to share it, it’s not only you that’s in pain.”

Abduweli’s wife explains when you open an old would and disinfect it, it is going to hurt and then you must let it heal again. His youngest daughter plays with him on a trampoline and shows him the beautiful flowers growing underneath. Through these interactions, Behind The Mask shows there is hope and a path to healing. 

Review by: Brandon MacMurray



The short end of the stick: The inferior part, the worse side of an unequal deal

When it comes to cinema and the Oscars it always feels like short films and getting the short end of the stick. Lack of coverage, lack of predictions from experts and an afterthought in the conversation. With this site we hope to change that, highlighting shorts that stick with you, predictions, and news on what is happening in the world of shorts. 

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