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  • Brandon MacMurray

Reviews from Big Sky Documentary Film Festival: Part 2




Forbidden Pond, dir. Eric Jenkins-Sahlin

 


Forbidden Pond starts with a microscope going in and out of focus. A woman is making a slide with pond water—buts she confesses that she learned how to do it from the internet, so she doesn’t quite know how to do it correctly. This is Deb Kapell, a retired epidemiologist who works for New York City health department, and which is one of the most surprisingly charming interview subjects from any recent documentary. What could have been a dry scientific document instead becomes something entirely different, just by letting its subject loose on the topic that she loves most.

 

We learn that Deb originally wanted to be a photographer, but she couldn’t carry a camera because of her bad back, so now she uses a microscope to capture her images instead. Bike riding and puddles are her hobbies, and although her friends respect her, nobody wants to ride bikes with her, so Deb travels alone to her local ponds around Flatbush, Brooklyn. She collects water samples and makes slides to view all sorts of infinitesimal organisms through her microscope. Sometimes you get a slide that’s “all life,” she exclaims enthusiastically, “It looks like 42nd Street!,” and the bright colours and incredible shapes that she shares are indeed almost like works of abstract art. 

 

Deb collects these 90 ml samples (“not quite a Negroni,” she laughs) in urine sample cups she stole from her podiatrist’s office and rushes home to see the variety of life that teems in the water. Jenkins-Sahlin makes use of incredible microscopic photography to show the splendour of these otherwise-invisible beauties as they slide, squirm and smoosh their way across the screen. Deb knows her approach is not necessarily the most scientific, but the way she anthropomorphizes the single-celled organism is incredibly amiable—“he’s sweet, just having fun,” she says of a particularly wormy creature. Nothing is guaranteed in life, Deb laughs, “It’s a didinium eat paramecium world,” but Forbidden Pond shows that what’s unseen by human eyes can be a delight.

 

 Review by: Joshua Hunt

 

Headshot, dir. Dominic Yarabe

 


The well-deserved winner of Big Sky Documentary Film Festival’s Artistic Vision recognition is Dominic Yarabe’s Headshot, an incredible thoughtful and moving short that packs it’s slim 8-minute runtime with a feature’s worth of ideas and images that explore the relationship Black Americans to nature, the camera and violence.” Beautifully monochrome black-on-black-black photography ensures that Headshot’s visuals are always as exciting as the ideas that it presents.

 

Yarabe says she set out to make a documentary film about nature and landscapes, because “it sounds poetic and nice,” but then she remembers, she laughs in voice-over, “that Black people don’t go camping.” And when Yarabe sees pictures of black slaves, her camera feels heavy, she says, and doesn’t know how to move forward. This unsettling image then leads her towards a path of grappling with some of the dark and rarely discussed origins of film, where Yarabe explores the importance of documenting black lives, and the importance of what the camera can do for black history

 

The violence that is implicit throughout is made explicit at the end of the film when its subtitle appears, Headshot: Lessons from Shooting Black People, when the historical violence of the slave photo that was Yarabe’s starting point is linked to the ongoing violence that Black Americans continue to face. Produced for documentary film MFA at Stanford University, Headshot is structured a discussion, but as it progresses, Yarabe makes discoveries and digressions, almost as if she is discovering what the film is about as she makes it, and it is a genuine thrill to follow the talented first-time director along this path. 


Review by: Joshua Hunt


Hold The Line, dir. Daniel Lombroso



Hold The Line is centred around the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), but mostly follows two pastors on opposite sides of a pressing debate. Should women be allowed to pastor in the SBC churches? 


On one side of the debate you have Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church who has put forth an amendment that no women should be allowed to pastor in the SBC, an act that would in turn expel churches that do so. Tom is what you would typically expect from a stereotypical “Christian” man from the south. His love for guns seems to run as deep as his misogyny, as he seems proud when what you assume to be his granddaughter (who looks to be around ten) exclaims that she shot a gun for the first time. “Isn’t that fun?!” he asks with a smile. 


On the other side of the issue you have Linda Barnes Popham, pastor of Fern Creek Baptist Church. She acknowledges the unpopularity of her pastorate, as some in her congregation left when she become pastor due to the fact she is a woman. When asked if she is a feminist, Linda is quick to reply with a no and clarifies that she has never set out to be a cheerleader for women’s rights but is just doing what she feels God has called her to do. 


On a more broad scope, Hold The Line takes a look at how the SBC deals with a changing society around them. While society pushes to be more inclusive and value everyone equally, pastors like Tom stay stagnant. Their response is to hold the line and to not adapt and change with the times. An act that could very well be their own demise.  A telling quote from Tom exemplifies the isolation bubble the people who share his point of view are creating: “You know I live in an echo chamber in these kind of circumstances, because no one who disagrees talks to me, but I’m encouraged.” 


Director Daniel Lombroso does an excellent job in remaining unbiased and objectively shows the process that the SBC is going through. Everything is laid out on the table and each side of the issue is given a voice, allowing the viewer to take on inside look at the workings of an organization and decide their own feelings on it. Something more than even the SBC themselves allowed. 


With a final time for remarks for and against the amendment it is clear to see the decision has already been made and the bias against women is already there. As Tom is allowed to speak and share, the sound from Linda’s mic is cut not allowing her to finish speaking. It's an act that silences a woman, something the SBC is systemically trying to promote in its rules. It’s alarming and staggering to see the amount of SBC members that agree with Tom as 91% vote Linda’s church out of the SBC. 


Hold The Line ends with Tom Ascol having to face the accusations of hatefulness, divisiveness and exclusivity head on. His answer of “Well, people who say that (I’m hateful and divisive), should have known me before I converted.” plays out as a poor excuse. Just because you were more hateful in your past doesn’t make it okay to be hateful and divisive now. We all know that in the end, love and inclusivity always wins, and that shows in the ending statistics, as the SBC has lost 1.5 million members over the past 3 years and continues to decline. 


Review by: Brandon MacMurray


Over the Wall, dir. Krystal Tingle



Historically, racing is a male dominated sport. Over the past decades, there have been initiatives to include more women and people of color, in a sport that is predominantly white and male. In Over the Wall, we can see one of the results of this opening, and while it may be historical, it is still a change that is happening at a slow pace. In the film directed by Krystal Tingle, Brehanna Daniels is presented as the first-black woman to be a pit crew member in a Nascar Cup series team. Apart from focusing on the fact that she is a woman on a whole male team, Krystal focuses on showing how changing tires needs to be done in just a few seconds. The average time to be among the fastest pit-crews in the competition was 11.315 seconds, which requires a crew of athletes to be the best team possible. 


Focusing on the athletic aspect of being in a pit crew brings a different view of what is typically presented in the sport. It compares the makeup of the team as the same as a football team, each member has its function which requires a specific function to perform during the races. The point of view chosen by the director is to accompany Brehanna’s return from a season-ending injury to the Daytona 500, the most important race in Nascar. In order to estabilish the difficulty of coming back from an ACL tear, an injury most common is sports such as football, basketball, and Lacrosse. The level of impact training developed by Brehanna and her trainer shows how demanding the profession is on the body and the amount of body consciousness and mental training that is required to do the fastest pit possible. 


The synthy score constructs a pace alongside the fast editing that establishes montages that approach the evolution of the sport and also the constant drive to be the fastest one on the track. The quick editing fits the emotional climax of Brehanna returning back to Daytona, where she had the injury. Again, the focus on her performing the task rather than the racing result is a point of view that is coherent to Tingle’s directing. The whole film is about the return and the athletic abilities of the crew members rather than the power and force of the motors in those cars. 


Over the Wall is an engaging film that narrates a historical character in Nascar’s history, but approaches her as the important professional that she is, not only a historical anecdote. Tingle’s directing builds a fascinating story about overcoming hardship and delivers a solid sports documentary. 


Review by: Pedro Lima


Seat 31: Zooey Zephyr, dir. Kimberly Reed



In April, 2023, broadcasting news and social media reported the shockingly censoring of the Montana representative Zooey Zephyr, who was vetoed from speaking and even entering the house of representatives by her republican colleagues. Banned from being present in the room, Zooey decided to sit on a bench outside the house and participate virtually in the sessions. The main reason for her veto was the incisive speeches that she gave on the law which bans the rights of trans people to have health care secured. 


Following the consequences of the punishment, Seat 31: Zooey Zephyr is directed by Kimberly Reed and had its world premiere at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival 2024. The 13 minutes film is effective to exemplify the chaotic results of the censoring by the house of Montana, which brought safety threats to Zooey’s girlfriend, Erin Reed. It also shows how conservatives supporters tried to affect Zooey psychologically while occupying the bench where she would work. With a turn the other cheek approach, she decides to work standing-up at the snack bar nearby instead. 


The film shows that it is not enough to elect transgender people if their rights to speak are not properly guaranteed, even voting for a law that directly affects the community. When Zooey told the Montana house that voting no for the rights of gender-affirming care is having bloods on their hands, it showed that this truth bothered them more than the suicide of trans people who don’t have the right care and support from public policies. The Republican lawmakers only wanted to conform to their ideology rather than protecting Montana’s young people. It just showed how hypocritical they are when it matters the most. 


Seat 31 is an interesting analysis on the months of chaos in the life of an important representative, who was only trying to make a difference for those who voted for her. The film won the mini-doc award and it is now qualified for the 2025 Academy Awards. 


Review by: Pedro Lima


Until He's Back, dir. Jacqueline Baylon



Morocco and Spain are just 14.5 kilometers (9 miles) apart by sea on the closest point - the Gibraltar Strait. Close enough for the other side to be visible when standing on the coast. Close enough for some professional swimmers to cross under good circumstances. Sadly this means it is also close enough for many refugees to attempt to cross under dangerous circumstances, for a chance of making their way into Europe illegally.


In this documentary we follow Ahmed Tchiche, who’s son Yahya is one of the lives tragically lost to the sea crossing. Ahmed must find a way for his son's body to be returned to Morocco, in order to give him a proper burial and his family some closure amidst the mourning. With the help of a Spanish mortician, an NGO worker and an established Moroccan living in Spain we follow along as Ahmed tries to navigate the complex and lengthy bureaucratic process.


The film stands out from many other refugee stories by focusing on the important and difficult work done by many organizations to help alleviate the pain for all those caught in the middle of the refugee crisis. The families left behind trying to retrieve their dead sons and daughters. The boats that get caught in a storm mid way and don't quite make the cross over.


We cross paths with many others who are in other parts of the same journey Ahmed and his family are on, who are all willing to go to great lengths to simply get answers and a proper resolution. Instead of focusing on the political issues forcing people to take to migration as a solution, the documentary takes a human approach in dealing with the ramifications, and it does an amazing job at conveying a sense of hurt and despair that these incredible workers experience every day at their jobs. It leaves behind an inspiring sliver of hope amidst catastrophe.


Until He's Back is qualified for the 2025 Oscars in documentary short after winning Best Documentary Short at this years Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.


Review by: Robin Hellgren

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ShortStick

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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