Over 400 people packed the house for the Nov. 3 premiere of “Bigfork, A Montana Story,” a locally made film documenting the story and history of Bigfork from its beginning.
The film’s debut, held at the Bigfork Center for the Performing Arts, sold out two weeks prior to the event as young and old, new and longtime Bigfork residents flocked to see the story of their town.
Gov. Steve Bullock said in a letter of introduction and commendation of the film, “Where the Swan and Flathead rivers empty into Flathead Lake and the Swan Range provides a majestic backdrop, Bigfork is one of Montana’s spectacular places.”
The premiere featured a performance by the composer of the documentary’s film score, Donald Beans, playing an original composition entitled “The Best Place.”
A production of the Bigfork Arts and Cultural Center, the film was a collaborative, volunteer effort by Director Ed Gillenwater, Bigfork historian Denny Kellogg and Bigfork artist Tabby Ivy.
The team formerly worked together on “A Timeless Legacy,” a documentary celebrating women artists of Glacier National Park created originally for the Hockaday Museum and recently picked up by the television network PBS.
“Bigfork, A Montana Story” documents the town’s history from beginning to present, starting as far back as the Ice Age.
The reason for this, according to Beans, was to show the geographic origins of the town and deeper explore the reason Bigfork was one of the last places settled in the continental U.S.
In the time before Bigfork, glacial ice covered most of the land to the east of Flathead Lake, making the eastern shore too steep and hazardous to trek.
Back then, Gillenwater said, the journey from modern day Polson to Somers took a month. Without the bridges connecting the lake’s shores today, crossing proved nearly impossible and settlement unthinkable.
“The story of Bigfork is really the story of a lot of the Northwest. It’s a common story that fits the Flathead,” Gillenwater said.
“Little geographic things that we don’t think about and just drive over were huge obstacles to people back then,” he added.
Fast forward a few hundred years, the ice retreats and the stage for modern-day Bigfork begins to take shape.
When the first settlers finally did venture into the area, Gillenwater said many of them were no more than young, determined teenagers out to establish a land and a life of their own.
Bigfork was not officially platted until 1902, but with the help of its local lumber industry, it quickly grew into a thriving Flathead community owned and run by its residents.
Most of the historical data contained in the film came to light due to Kellogg’s “insatiable” efforts to collect and archive it all, according to Gillenwater.
File after file of everything from old newspaper articles and photos, to zoning and property records spilled out of Kellogg’s office as he worked with his co-creators to piece together the chronicles of Bigfork.
But it’s not just all just a bunch of old photos and facts.
The film goes on to share local voices telling the town’s tale through their individual memories and anecdotes.
One part of the film Gillenwater said he particularly enjoyed piecing together was the story of how logging activity shaped Bigfork.
Lumber harvested in the Swan Valley in the 1910s floated down the river and across Flathead Lake to be sold in Somers.
Around 25 percent of the 300-year-old timber, however, sank into up to 60-foot deep holes in the bottom of the Swan River before reaching their destination.
Now, over 100 years later, divers have begun to retrieve and salvage the lost lumber, bringing the story full circle through an interview with a diver and vivid underwater videography.
The hardest part the film’s creators faced, according to Gillenwater, was choosing between the hundreds of still photos and cutting down the thousands of video clips into the two-hour director’s cut that premiered Friday. Cutting the film down to a final version about an hour in length will take another few months of work.
“Documentaries are different from most films. You don’t write a script and then shoot,” Gillenwater said.
The process took thousands of hours of interviewing, filming, writing and editing.
“It starts out with a personal interest in something and realizing there’s probably a lot of other folks like myself,” Gillenwater said. “When you start telling personal stories like this you get sort of involved in it.”
Time, he said, was the team’s biggest limiting factor. Taking hours and hours of interviews and cutting them down while still trying to do the stories and their tellers justice proved quite a challenge, but ultimately, Gillenwater said, he is happy with the results.
His goal with the film, he said, was to “help provide something that gives the town a center,” to preserve its history and identity.
“To me, I think a community like Bigfork as it evolves as all communities do, there needs to be preserved a sort of community center…something to share with each new generation,” he said.
Due to the popularity of the film’s première, an encore showing of the film has been scheduled for Nov. 12, and, according to Ivy, it too has sold out.
The documentary also inspired a gallery exhibit featured in the Bigfork Arts and Cultural Center and a coffee table book containing many of the images and script featured in the film.
DVDs of the director’s cut of the film will be available for purchase later this month with the final cut scheduled for release this spring/summer.
The team’s work is not yet finished, though, as they work to put together an archived town history comprising all the content collected over the filmmaking process. Every interview, photo, article and story will be filed away for future public viewing as a way to preserve Bigfork’s past.
For more information on the Bigfork documentary or gallery exhibit, visit http://bigforkculture.org/.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.