by Sheri Boggs
Creativity flourishes in the pines of North Idaho, fed on mountain streams, cool night air and the uninterrupted working space of a life outside of big city distractions. Want proof? Writer Denis Johnson, author of Jesus's Son, lives a quiet life in the woods outside of Sandpoint. Actors Patty Duke and Ellen Travolta have migrated to North Idaho, where their talents and experience regularly infuse the local theater scene. Art on the Green in Coeur d'Alene is one of the biggest celebrations of creativity in the visual arts in the region. And the Panida Theater, on the banks of Sand Creek, serves as the hub of Sandpoint's burgeoning arts scene, with live theater, foreign film nights and the occasional film festival.
This weekend, the Panida hosts "Cream of the Crop: Award-Winning Films from Sandpoint's Own," a gathering of work by a handful of local filmmakers, some with remarkable honors on their resumes.
"We've been thinking of the Sandpoint Centennial and thinking and thinking of what we could do," says Karen Bowers, executive director and manager of the Panida. "We thought about doing a variety show, but quite frankly, nobody really wanted to do that. And I thought, why don't we show Housekeeping, and that's how it started. From that, I came up with the idea of a night of Sandpoint cinema."
Housekeeping, which kicks the festival off tonight, was directed by Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl, Local Hero) and stars Christine Lahti as the eccentric aunt of two orphaned sisters. The 1987 movie is based on the novel by Marilynne Robinson, who herself had extensive ties to Sandpoint.
"She was a Sandpoint resident for years and wrote the book based on her vivid memories of growing up in Sandpoint," says Bowers. But while the story is set in a fictional town patterned after Sandpoint, unfortunately, the film wasn't shot there.
"It was filmed in Nelson and Castlegar because the story takes place in the late '50s, and the filmmakers felt that those two towns still looked the way Sandpoint used to look," Bowers explains.
Friday night's feature is the 1977 documentary,Who Are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids? Sandpoint resident Dan McCann won an Academy Award for his work on the film as a producer (along with John Korty and Warren Lockhart). Shot over a period of almost two years, the film chronicles the daily life of Bob and Dorothy DeBolt, of Piedmont, Calif., an ordinary, working class, suburban family with 14 adopted "special needs" children.
"One of the things I often find lacking in reporting on documentary film is that it's a collaborative effort," says McCann. "No one person has the ultimate power of omnipotent maneuvers." McCann says the crew was small, but that this enabled them to make a better film.
"A large crew is the kiss of death on a documentary. In a public environment you've got about a 10-minute window to film before a crowd starts showing up to watch. And the larger your crew is, the faster you're going to be noticed."
Because a good portion of the film takes place inside the DeBolt's home, the filmmakers spent a great deal of time just hanging out with the family while waiting for lighting and sound to be set up. "It was great because we were able to ease into it and gain their trust over time, which is the luxury you're usually never afforded in making a documentary."
The resulting film is a poignant, intimate and often-funny look at what it's like to live, day in and day out, with a physical disability within the context of a loving, challenging environment. The viewer spends time getting to know most of the kids. There are the two Vietnamese boys who keep a vegetable garden in the DeBolt's back yard, and tend it while on crutches. There's J.R., blind and paralyzed from the waist down, who comes to live with the family during the time of the documentary's filming. Twee, one of the last children to be airlifted out of Vietnam and who survived the crash of her plane, is another child who's adopted by the DeBolts during this same period, and some of the film follows her cornea transplant operation.
One of the most unforgettable children is Karen, who wears prosthetic arms and legs, but whose matter-of-fact, cheerful assertiveness shines in her several "scenes" in the film. Early in the film, she's playing music with her sister, Sunny, and the two are arguing about how fast 4/4 time is. While Sunny plunks on the piano, Karen becomes exasperated, elegantly waving her xylophone sticks in the air and insisting she's right. It's a quietly charming moment, just watching these two young girls interact as if there's no one else in the room and more importantly, living their everyday lives rather than being defined by their handicaps.
In fact, it's this exact sensibility that infuses the entire film. The viewer goes grocery shopping with the DeBolts, walks with the kids to school, sings around the piano with the whole family and even embarks on vacation.
"You watch that part where they're getting ready to go on vacation, and you think, how could they do that?" laughs McCann. Going on vacation for the DeBolts in this film means remembering many different medical supplies, an endless array of wheelchairs and braces and figuring out how to best arrange 19 kids in three station wagons.
"We never did see them fall apart. The parents were really good about conflict, they put everything in a positive light, but not in an overly saccharine way," recalls McCann.
Throughout the film, the home's gently spiraling staircase provides a recurring motif, a Mt. Everest of sorts, that each child faces on his or her own terms. While it is never overtly stated, the staircase presents limitations that are nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the scene where J.R. slowly, painstakingly makes his way to the top with very little fanfare, and except for the filmmakers, hardly an audience.
McCann first came to Sandpoint in the late '70s to visit a friend and kept an upstairs apartment in the house where he now lives. McCann eventually bought the house and now lives in Sandpoint full time. In the years since Who Are the DeBolts, McCann has gone on to work on a variety of projects, including commercial projects for Nike and a documentary treatment of Marc Reisner's Cadillac Desert, on which he worked with John Else, the cameraman and director from Who Are the DeBolts.
Saturday night features three documentaries by Erik Daarstad, also an Academy Award winner, who, like McCann, came to Sandpoint and fell in love with the place.
"We'd been living in the L.A. area for some 20 years and we were looking to move to a smaller city with a ski area nearby," Daarstad explains. "We were looking at Aspen, Colo., originally, which wasn't anywhere near as developed then as it is now. So this was a better choice for us."
Daarstad's 1969 film Why Man Creates, which was largely funded by Kaiser Aluminum, was a collaborative project with designer Saul Bass.
"He was a renowned graphic designer at the time who did a lot of work designing corporate logos and movie titles, for instance he did the titles for The Man with a Golden Arm and West Side Story," says Daarstad. "He was also a big part of designing the shower scene in Psycho."
The film explores the human desire to create, and it fit well with the zeitgeist of the late '60s. "It was a very popular film for that kind of film," he says. "I understand that a great many college campuses were showing it for a while, but it's beginning to show its age a little bit."
The second Daarstad offering of the film festival is A Life Apart, based on the life of Sandpoint's own "hermit lady," Barbara Rotheker, who passed away last year. Rotheker lived on Upper Gold Creek Road in a one-room, earth-covered home that she designed herself with ecologically sound, low-impact architectural principles in mind. The 22-minute film features music by Leon Atkinson and was directed by another local director, Robin DuCrest, who made A Life Apart with the help of a grant from the Idaho Humanities Commission. Daarstad served as cinematographer on the project.
The third and final offering is Bird by Bird with Anne Lamott, a documentary on the brilliant and quick-witted author of Traveling Mercies, Bird by Bird and Operating Instructions. Daarstad filmed Lamott over the course of a year, and while the film is named after her book on the dubious rewards of the writing life, the movie is more about the writer than it is about writing.
"She was great to work with," says Daarstad, with a chuckle. "She was really very funny, but the film also captures who she is as a person, and her life -- which hasn't been easy -- to some degree."
The film festival also includes two films by student filmmakers on Friday night, and if turnout at the Panida's other film offerings is any indication, the festival ought to be a remarkable success.
"We have such a wonderful audience for Global Cinema," says Bowers, referring to her regular showings of independent and foreign films. "I usually get an easy hundred, which in a town of this size is really amazing. And I think people are really going to enjoy the films we're showing for the festival."
"Cream of the Crop: Award-Winning Films from Sandpoint's Own" is at the Panida Theater, July 5-7. Housekeeping shows at 7:30 pm, Thursday, July 5. Tickets: $5; $4 seniors and students; $3 children. Who Are the DeBolts and Where Did They Get Nineteen Kids and two student films show at 7:30 pm, Friday, July 6. Tickets: $6; $5 seniors and students; $4 children. Three films by Erik Daarstad will be shown at 7:30 pm, Saturday, July 7. Tickets: $6; $5 seniors and students; $4 children. Filmmakers will be on hand at post-screening receptions all three nights. Festival passes are also available: $15; $12 seniors and students; $10 children. Call: (208) 263-9191.