I caught my first Traverse City Film Festival this weekend, 15 summers into this northern Michigan gathering bringing together hundreds of thousands of people to marvel at the power of film and storytelling. “It’s been a rockin’ 15 years,” per Michael Moore, director, founder and TCFF President, in his program introduction, this year’s program booklet proclaiming One Great Movie Can Change The World. “This is not the TC of 15 years ago with its closed down theaters, boarded up stores, and its youth hoping to move on somewhere else. Today it’s alive and vibrant and progressive. The arts are a dominant force. The environment, health care, and equality are the top priorities… The Traverse City Film Festival is recognized locally as the spark that lit the fuse to make this one of the most livable cities in the country… We began this endeavor believing that movies uplift and agitate and Heal and inform. We watch them in large groups of neighbors and fellow citizens of the world. This collective experience of feeling and laughing and crying and thinking together is the first step to making things better, of elevating us all out of the malaise – the madness – we are in. We can do this! WE ARE DOING THIS!
Moore lead a talk with screenwriter and author Sarfraz Manzoor, who published a memoir Greetings from Bury Park about growing up in small UK town and the impact upon his life of the music of Bruce Springsteen, the inspiration for the Michigan premiere of Blinded By The Light. If you’re a Bruce fan, and I am, you’ll be dancing in the dark and playing air guitar the entire feel good flick long. If you’re not… there were alternatives. The new David Crosby documentary Remember My Name offered stunning archival videos and interviews that traced back through Crosby’s career with The Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The heartfelt and brutally honest introspection of Crosby — laying bare the best and worst of his experiences as a counter cultural icon whose lost every past musical friendship undone by his own ego and drug abuse — made this a moving rock biography. The stories told were standout, from the opening recount of an insane drug-fueled jam session with John Coltrane to Crosby describing musical icons like Joni Mitchell, as “Damaged, brilliant, lonely and fantastic.” The magic that was CSN started in “All of 40 seconds, that’s all it took.”
In addition, I caught The Story of CREEM Magazine, The Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams film After The Wedding (Eh), the Danish but nearly dialogue free thriller Arctic, the late night horror offering The Wretched and equally spooky Them That Follow, as well as the documentary Framing John Delorean. Saturday morning was cartoon-central with animated Shorts For All Kids, 80% of which celebrated the young’s adoration for animals, with titles like Birds of a Feather, Who Moved My Penguin, The Bird and The Whale, Sheep, Peacock and Sloth. A funny Japanese anima short with dialogue between the cartoon raccoon and buffalo translated subtitles like, “You wretched untrustworthy traitor! I am done with you!” - which were a lot of fun to hear in Japanese.
But then there was the one film that stood alone, stood apart, like its legendary subject matter, both the man and the movie seriously moving. Billed as the Native American offering and showcased early Sunday morning, Words from a Bear examines the enigmatic life and mind of Kiowa Pulitzer Prize winning author Navarro Scott Momaday. Delving into the psyche behind one of Native America's most celebrated authors of poetry and prose, the film visually captures the essence of the Master storyteller’s writings and crazy body of work, including his achievement of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature in 1969 with the novel House Made of Dawn. Later efforts solidified his place as the founding member of the "Native American Renaissance" in art and literature, influencing a generation of Native American artists, scholars, and political activists. What a discovery.
Springing forth from a unique cultural heritage, Momaday's work asks the questions every audience can relate to: what are our origins and how do we connect to them through our collective memories? “The most important question one can ask is: Who Am I?”, states the artist at the film’s opening, as he then unearths answers relevant to us all. Relating from his own imaginative, indigenous upbringing, he speaks of his ancestors, who, although at the bottom of the poverty scale, were “rich in their lives, delighting in life and being in nature. Native peoples more than anyone are invested deeply in the landscape… always moored to the land with an attitude, a yearning, a loyalty, and reverence for it.” Of Momaday, The New York Times said he is “a man with a sacred investiture. Strong medicine, strong art indeed.”
Giving presence to Momaday’s extraordinary creative vision and evolution as one of America’s most gifted artists, the film use of historical photos, original animation, and stunning aerial landscapes complemented captivating interviews with Robert Redford, Jeff and Beau Bridges, James Earle Jones and others. From the origin story of Devil’s Tower, a sacred spot to the Kiowa people, to the telling of the tale of Tai-Mai, the Sun Dance Spirit that “was a concerted expression of tribal wholeness”, the artist continuously inspired. Speaking of his relatives, they were “rich in spirit and deeply invested in a spiritual psychological view of the world with an ability, a power to see beyond reality, to see into that farther world… this was in our blood and in our Spirits… a connection to ancestry and a power impossible to speak of… out of which grew storytelling and the power to create as if it were ‘the very breath of God.’”