The Bozeman Doc Series’ and BDS Director, Jason Burlage
“Globe-trotting, mind-expanding, emotional-charting, soul-stirring cinematic experiences….This Ain’t No Mall Movie, these..are…DOCUMENTARIES!”
Heather Hume | Sunday Nov. 1st, 2015
The reason the word ‘documentaries’ is capitalized and in bold is because the documentaries featured in the Bozeman Doc Series are just that: they are bold commentaries: substantive, ambitious, intellectually-stimulating and beautifully jarring productions. That they are made on a fraction of the budget spent on a typical Hollywood franchise flick speaks volumes about the filmmakers’ passion, determination and dedication to getting their subjects’ stories told on the screen.
What documentaries reveal via storytelling enhances our knowledge about a particular place and spurs some viewers to take action: the films often spotlight a wrong, an injustice perpetuated on an individual or people, nature, animals, or planet Earth itself. They’re not just excuses to munch popcorn and forget as soon as the lights come up, but can foster movements and turn the proverbial tide if “they” (e.g. corporations, government, the authoritative entity, or even bullies on the playground) continue to oppress a person, place or fundamental right.
Documentaries are about real people in real places in real (and tense) situations and are meant to be galvanizing first—and, entertaining, second. But, excellent docs are often both..and not all are heavy or dark: many are downright charming, providing breezy, fun escapism (Spellbound; Mad Hot Ballroom).
It’s a balancing act to screen all kinds of docs; many titles are briskly paced and action-packed—like a Hollywood thriller. Conversely, some are deliberately quiet, striking a reverential tone for the ocean, say, or captivating in the form of a charismatic motorcycle maverick. A documentary film’s subjects might provide the sole voice for a region’s cause or its cause for celebration. Lastly, and this is why they can be a hard sell for distributors: many docs are lensed outside the US (thereby subtitled) and are seldom seen outside of film festivals. Much of America still prefers mainstream studio-films featuring household-name actors: ergo the adage, “How will it play in Peoria?”
One person in Bozeman decided Bozeman was ready for international and cutting-edge docs; he knew these films would find a receptive audience. Jason Burlage intended to bring recent, acclaimed, and groundbreaking documentary films to the Gallatin Valley despite initially not knowing how he’d succeed… or if much-needed financial assistance (read: sponsors) would jump onboard or even where the docs would be shown.
Burlage knew, however, why he wanted to bring these films to Bozeman; he felt the people in them deserved—nay, demanded--to be seen and heard. The easy part was determining when (the Bozeman Doc Series runs from October-April and features 14 films); the how required many people collaborating to create the line-up of films shown during a Bozeman Doc Series season.
Eleven of the 15 films in the BDS’ inaugural season last year premiered to Montana audiences. Burlage utilizes his contacts from MSU (’95; film major grad) and the many film festivals he’s attended as well as the contacts he’s made while filming his own two documentaries, to acquire docs from distributors to first be screened by Jason and a few BDS insiders who then determine if they’ll be screened here. Incidentally, Burlage is a documentary filmmaker himself. His film production company, Devolution Films, shot Mi Micla (“The Land,” 2010) in Peru and the upcoming release The Middle Kingdom in Shanghai, China.
When pressed to name his favorite from last year’s listings he glowingly refers to Spartacus and Cassandra (France) but asserts that “even the worst movie of the bunch, I really, really, really liked.” Of course, “liking” a documentary, in the conventional sense (i.e. enjoying/escaping via entertaining commercial fare) is different than liking other films. Burlage admits the films can be disturbing and difficult to watch (the upcoming companion film to the devastating Indonesian film The Act of Killing called The Look of Silence is a vivid example of humanity at its worst, after all). But Burlage and Co. pick and choose the films wisely, striking an appreciated balance between serious/gripping documentaries and the lighter, more whimsical fare evident from the line-up of the first and this year’s second season.
One film in particular is responsible for the genesis of the Bozeman Doc Series. When Burlage viewed Virunga, a doc that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in April 2014, it made such an impression on him he left the theatre determined to bring it to Bozeman. Fast forward 6 months, and the tale about Africa’s oldest national park and the people fighting to preserve it, kicked off the series in October 2014.
Jason grew up in Ashton, Idaho, a small town south of Bozeman, where potato fields stretch out on one side of his parents’ house while the majestic Tetons loom on the other. He lived in Los Angeles and New York and traveled extensively abroad, including long forays in South America and Asia. Bozeman is home for Burlage but it’s essential he travel to various film festivals in order to screen the best docs from around the world and hear directly from the filmmakers about their creative process--thus receiving a mini post-graduate education at each festival he attends.
After Virunga, an eclectic list of docs from around the world followed: “Waiting for August (Romania), Marmato (Colombia), Walking Under Water (Borneo), Point and Shoot (US; set in Libya), The Great Invisible (US; examines the Horizon Deepwater oil rig disaster and its effects on Gulf Coast residents), Tomorrow We Disappear (India), Citizen Four (US; Edward Snowden’s NSA bombshell, subsequent fall-out and his flight from persecution; Burlage predicted it would receive an Oscar nom and win for Best Documentary—which it did), Shield and Spear (South Africa), Western (US; also features Mexico), Spartacus and Cassandra (France), Being Evel (US; Evel Knievel, Butte native), How to Change the World (Canada; Greenpeace origins and its struggles today), Every Last Child (Pakistan; ensuring children receive polio vaccinations) and, lastly, Good Things Await (Denmark; an older couple’s traditional farming despite mounting pressure to modernize or become extinct, essentially).
Due to the crucial factor of screening this year’s documentaries, Burlage hasn’t yet listed the films to be screened past November in this year’s BDS season 2. The Russian Woodpecker and (T)error screened in October (both US) with the highly anticipated The Look of Silence slated for November 5th and In Transit on November 15th (US; a must-see for train-lovers).
Burlage realizes that some people are reluctant to see a documentary, fearing they’ll be depressing or demanding. He adds, with an apologetic laugh: “it’s like eating your vegetables. You may not like them but ultimately, they’re good for you.” Powerful documentaries are unforgettably unsettling. So much so that Burlage states, after watching a documentary like Virunga or The Act of Killing, “your view of humanity has changed.”
When queried about who’s coming to see the docs, Burlage acknowledges that having MSU creates an open-minded audience (one professor requires her film class students to see three of the BDS docs each semester) but points out it’s not just film school students who anticipate and appreciate documentaries from countries around the world and the U.S.
Thanks to Jason Burlage and the Series’ sponsors, we can magically transport to a site around the globe and discover human beings who are not strangers, or so strange, after all. We understand their struggles—and recognize their triumphs. If you want to dive into the deep end of the doc pool, you’re in luck. Bozeman is fortunate to have Movie Lovers, a nifty independent local video store with helpful, knowledgeable clerks who can determine which docs (out of hundreds of titles) will match your interests and reward your curiosity.
Winter is indeed coming –and, this season, it’s time to travel out of your comfort (Bo)zone and check out a doc from the Bozeman Doc Series every other Thursday night at the Emerson Cultural Center. Go to www.bozemandocseries.org or the Bozeman Magazine (sponsor) calendar(s) for show time info.