04/16/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Big Sky Doc Film Fest: Short Films Long on Quality

Missoula, Montana -- At the Woodstock Film Festival, and three months later at the Sundance Film Festival, I was determined to watch some short films. It didn't happen. Shorts always seem to come up short. Now on the second day of the Big Sky Documentary film festival, I'm sitting in the audience for Short Program # 2.

Why, by the way, do "real" films have to be 90 minutes long? Who is the dictator with the clock? Writers know different types of writing require different word lengths. There are 600 word blogs and 800 word opinion pieces, 1,500 word short articles, 5,000 magazine articles and 50,000 word books, and all are equally legitimate. But with films, if shorter than 90 minutes they are somehow less worthy. Time to break free of this dictator with the clock.

Here are the four Shorts in Short Program #2:

Director: Michael Angus
28 minutes

Michael Angus wants to travel into the void. With a small trailer attached, the Aussie bicycles deep into Lake Eyre in South Australia, into a flat, barren brown, featherless dry salt lake. "A total immersion into space, the void" Angus says. But what is his goal? What does he want to convey to the viewer? What is his point? Actually, is his space really the void?

There is the sky - a night show of infinite beauty, the moon a companion to light the space, the shifting white clouds. And there are his thoughts, relentless, overpowering his mind that is supposed to be empty in the void.

Michael begins to desire change in this mostly changeless environment. But this is not the social world, here change is nature's domain. And in the end Michael feels his self being swallowed, consumed by the void. The point? This is for you to decide. Should you live in the void? Well, tinkering with the self is no Sunday drive through the countryside. Ask Michael Angus.

Director: Andy Wilson
9 minutes

A chance encounter outside of Taos, New Mexico and filmmaker Andy Wilson knew immediately he had himself a real character. Whereas in Aspen, Colorado residents are moaning the passing of their town's characters, to the south in Taos, New Mexico weird characters are all over the place. One is named Joseph.

A a guitar playing, woman searching, dog loving, expressive character living in a trailer on the desolate mesa and off the grid with Taos in the far background. Joseph is a tad paranoia, possibly a tad crazy, but he's also open, alive, and a ball of laughs.

I agree with the filmmaker, an encounter with Joseph gives your faith in humanity a boost. Not sure why, but it does. Maybe because we see one American out there living life on his own weird terms. That has to make all of us feel good.

A Film from My Parish: 6 Farms
Director: Tony Dognoghue
7 minutes

Six Irish farmers in their houses and amongst their furnishing, yet I have no idea what this film is about. It skips and zips, animation twists and narrows the screen, Irish men and women shoot garbled sounds at the viewers requiring them to speed read subtitles that soon exhaust their minds. Well, my mind. I know that much.

Yet, I have a lingering thought that I was just ripped through some tunnel of meaning and my mind short circuited on the speed. Does that make sense? I don't know what it was, but it was something.

Milltown, Montana
Rainer Komers
34 minutes

After the Australian void, after Taos Joseph, after that Irish zipper,I was ready for Milltown, Montana. A traditional and predicable narrative, a cognitive coherent story. But at Big Sky you're never safe.

The German director has produced a collage of images that are dialogue-less. Sure there are sounds -- the wind, machines humming and banging, people talking -- sounds that come from the image slideshow. It's an episodic extravagance of a town and region in Montana and we are whisked through a golf course, a prison, center for senior citizens, school for children, cowboys and miners and a trapper, bars, streets, mountains. Images from the mundane to the beautiful to the strange to the upsetting -- a few Montanans walked out of the theater.

Without narrative, without story -- no, there is story. It's your story. You give the images on the screen context, you give the juxtapositions meaning, you make the associations, and you have your film.

I missed that in the Irish rip, the words came too fast and furious for me to see the picture. In this collage of Montana, the images did speak words. I heard them. And I suddenly understood why the Australian Michael Angus wanted the silence of the void. Then he could carve out his meaning free from the bombardment of modern society.

And walking out of the theater, I thought about Joseph, and how he was his own film. Sight and sound and all, filling the wide screen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. And I thought how in the nooks and crannies from Australia to Ireland to the United States there are characters everywhere, and filmmakers everywhere are bringing these characters to us. Whether as short films or as long films.