Jackson Hole Film Festival

Ben Friedland June 13, 2007

Strangely enough, perhaps the most compelling reason to attend the Jackson Hole Film Festival is precisely the reason not to actually see a film: Jackson Hole itself. Set in one of the more picturesque spots in America — an old cowboy town surrounded by the majestic snow-capped Teton Range, with the mighty Snake River threading through it, a short drive from both Yellowstone and Grand Teton — the 4th annual film festival here is fighting the great outdoors for crowds. Which is not to say there weren’t some great films for those who decided to skip a day of white-water rafting.

The modest, five-day festival, which opened on June 7th, with Wisit Sasanatieng’s thrilling Thai/Western genre flick "Tears of the Black Tiger" (re-released earlier in the year with the original ending restored), and wrapped Monday night with Tommy O’Haver’s "An American Crime," screened more than 90 films from some 20 countries, played host to dozens of filmmakers and industry guests, and reminded this outdoorsy, breathtaking, tourist-filled town of the pleasures found in a darkened, air-conditioned movie theater (or playhouse or hotel conference space, as the case may be).

[Editor’s note: This article appeared originally in indieWIRE on June 12, 2007. Ben Friedland is staff at the SF Film Society, co-publisher of SF360.org.]

Like any good film festival, this one, presented by the Jackson Hole Film Institute, served up a number of unexpected treasures (and an occasional dud). President Eben Dorros, Program Director Melanie Miller and Programmer Noam Dorros deserve mostly high marks, especially, for example, for recognizing the quiet insight in Ben Niles’ documentary "Note by Note: the Making of Steinway L1037," which chronicles the year-long, hand-crafted construction of a single Steinway & Sons piano.

This festival is, of course, a destination festival, and the complete mellowness of the town seeps through all aspects of it. There were no sold-out shows, no glitz, no reserved seats, no major premieres; and the film write-ups in the program guide are reduced to a few sentences at best. Volunteers (where would film festivals be without them?) introduce most of the screenings, and it’s not uncommon to hear something to the effect of "so I think the director is here, is that right? So we’re going to, like, have a Q&A after." In other words, what may seem quaint or unprofessional at another festival feels about right here; but it may need to button-up a bit, if it wants to raise its profile.

Awards were given out on Sunday evening, and the big winner was Logan Smalley’s heartwarming, tear-jerking documentary "Darius Goes West: The Roll of His Life," which took home the award for best documentary as well as the audience award. The film tells the amazing story of Darius Weems, an incredibly charismatic 15-year-old, born with the fatal, degenerative disease Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The disease has left him in a wheelchair, and a selfless group of his friends take him on an RV trip from Athens, GA (Darius has never left his hometown) to California and back with the ultimate goal of getting MTV’s "Pimp My Ride" to trick-out Darius’ wheelchair (and to spread awareness of the disease). The film, part road flick, part advocacy film, part buddy movie, tremendously sad, and totally inspiring, is a real treat.

Thora Birch attended the Awards Ceremony to receive the festival’s Nellie Tayloe Ross Award, named for Wyoming’s first woman Governor (elected in 1924), honoring "the accomplishments of women, both past and present, who embody the independent spirit and achievement among women in film." After a clip-reel of Birch’s work, the young actress pledged to live her life in the pioneering spirit of Governor Ross.

The other awardees were many, and included Brad Gann’s film "Black Irish" for Best Feature, Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s "Memories of Tomorrow" for Best World Program feature, Mark Verkerk’s "Buddha’s Lost Children" for best Global Insight feature, Luke Wolbach’s "Row Hard: No Excuses" for Best Sports Action, Rene Hernandez’s "Small Boxes" for Best Short, John Arlotto’s "Deface" for Best Student Voice and Masanori Baba’s "Chiyo — No Omukae" for Best World Program short.

From its inception, the Jackson Hole has made it a point to screen socially conscious, humanitarian works in its Global Insight section, and this year the festival partnered with the Humpty Dumpty Institute, a New York-based NGO, to further examine these global issues through film. The lineup ranged from immigration (Kevin Koblock’s "Border War") and child labor (Rand Pearson’s "Gem Slaves: Tanzanite’s Child Labour") to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (Joel Blasberg and Oreet Rees’ "Withdrawal From Gaza") and women’s rights in Pakistan (Mohammed Naqvi’s "Shame"). The section featured some great, gritty films, if a bit of a downer, but, as Oscar-nominated film producer Robert Bilheimer said during a panel on human trafficking, "this is the world as it is."

The festival has noble aims, exploring film not just as an art-form, but as a platform to discuss a number of global issues. The State Department was on hand to spread awareness about mine fields and demonstrated how dogs are used to track mines. A group of Iranian filmmakers who were touring various festivals in the States were in town to connect with their American counterparts and exchange ideas about filmmaking and culture. The Humpty Dumpty Institute and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, sponsored two intriguing, well-attended panels on human trafficking and on the importance of education for girls in the developing world.

Certainly the most fun and invigorating films in the festival played in the Sports Action section. These films, perhaps more than any others screening, captured the spirit of Jackson Hole, or as Program Director Miller put it, "It just makes sense for us to show them." Films like, Jeff Roe’s "Stuntwood: The Birth, Life and Death of a Skateboard," Matt Goodman’s snowboarding film "For Right or Wrong" and Justin LePera’s surfing expedition film "The Forgotten Coast" aren’t just highlight reels (although they’ve got plenty of those) but actually tell stories with compassion and humor and inspired cinematography.

At times, it felt like the five days belonged to the contingent from the documentary Sierra Leone’s "Refugee All Stars," which played in the Global Insight section. The film follows six Sierra Leone musicians who form a reggae band while living as refugees in Guinea, and directors Zach Niles and Banker White attended, along with the band, and the films’ music supervisor Chris Velan. The film played to rousing audience on Saturday, and then the band wowed the town later that night with an exuberant concert. Even Velan, who produced the band’s fine self-titled record, played an acoustic set the night before. All of which should have been enough to delight even the most die-hard outdoors devotee.