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  • Writer's pictureJacob Boelman

Missing Out On Big Sky

Screenshot from Paxson: A Home in Common

Screenshot from Paxson: A Home in Common

Well, our local festival, Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, sent an automated message the other day letting us know we were not selected. This now stands at four different festivals, of the thirty-plus places I've submitted so far, that have passed us up.

Working so long and hard on a documentary like this makes these types of swings and misses especially difficult to stomach. One of the first impulses is to lash out. Maybe write an angry email to the festival selection committee, protest their poor choice by not attending this year, or try to shame the festival publicly on social media. The truth is, however, I have been attending this festival for years now, made some promotions for them, and know several local artists who have had work selected for the event. For over a decade, I have hoped to create a piece good enough that they would one day show it.

Here comes the other element I'm wrestling with. What makes for a "good enough" piece? Paxson has not changed. I worked on this documentary for seven years. Numerous times, I felt it was not good enough to be shown to the general public; almost none of the footage I filmed for the first year of shooting made it to the final cut. I considered the film I finished years later a powerful work of art. The truth is I still feel this way.

We made a movie that is not easy to watch. There were numerous opportunities to polish the story's edges or make the narrative more commercially digestible, but I made countless choices to go a different route.

It's times like this where I need to do some intentional thinking. How funny this feeling is. On the one hand, I want to shout at the people who denied us. Tell them how stupid they are and what a masterpiece they are passing by. On the other hand, I look back at my decisions to keep the unfocused shots, rough-quality audio, and bittersweet ending and think this is what everyone warned me against. We had no business making this film. We had no money. My tendencies are, at times, antagonistic and unconventional. And the few people who could have helped me defend/champion the piece left before the doc was finished. Most of my guides are either not contactable or dead. How does one argue a close-up can go on for minutes without cutting because Bergman did it? How does one prove that you can throw the conventional plot out the window and rely on the power of a character's inability to articulate answers because Warner Herzog does this? How does one argue that you don't need an antagonist, and as soon as we start to root for one side over another, we should muddle the waters by providing another angle to view the issue from because Scorsese has made a living doing this? One should not attack convention for the sake of attacking convention. Still, I've studied these artists enough to utilize their lessons to break the rules when it makes for more compelling and honest storytelling.

The problem is my story is now being denied by festivals I felt would get it. This is the way of the artist. We, of course, first need to be students of the art form. We must be humble enough to learn from those who know better than we do. But there comes a time when we must venture out on our own and share with the world our bold perspective. The goal is not to satisfy any voice but that inner whisper that tells you to keep fighting for your vision. As anyone who has worked with me on this film will tell you, I have a reason for every frame of this film. Many of the arguments originated with those helping me make the movie, and many others were my own. But the piece that is Paxson: A Home in Common has already been forged. Now, I need to accept the response to the piece I've made.

Ultimately, I'm left figuring out how to continue fighting for this story, warts and all. Whether it is good or not, I believe I left everything out on the field. I made the best documentary possible and must stand behind my story for better or worse. However, fighting for others to watch the film and accept it into different festivals is a much more difficult task. Other than the fact I'm not very good at anything else and have to make a living somehow, it would be easier to keep these stories to myself.

I picked the story back up again because a few critical people in my life articulated how important it was for the world to see this film. Though I thought I was documenting a singular troubling instance in the assisted living industry, friends and acquaintances working in assisted living who watched the rough version communicated how eerily similar the experiences were to their own. And people outside the industry communicated how they felt for the first time they were given a raw, sobering, and humane look at the complicated elements of this vital line of work.

Now, I am faced with getting back up from a gut punch. Whether it was wise or not, I am invested and must find a better way to push forward--tomorrow.

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