“Makoshika,” a documentary about boom-and-bust times in the Bakken oil field, will have its Billings premiere this Sunday.
The 50-minute documentary made its Montana premiere on Monday at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula. It will be shown at 7 p.m. this Sunday at the Babcock Theater in Billings and then from March 4-10 at the Art House Cinema & Pub, also in downtown Billings.
Much of the documentary filming was done during the summer of 2014, when production in the oil field was near its peak. During a subsequent visit that winter, oil prices were down to around $50 a barrel, and residents were beginning to worry that the bust could be near.
“The attitude had changed completely,” said Jessica Jane Hart, the film’s director.
Watch the trailer
For more information on “Makoshika,” and to watch a trailer for the documentary, go here.
Like many of those involved in the film, she has Billings roots. She grew up here and now lives near San Francisco by way of Munich, Germany, and New York City.
Producers Pete Tolton and Stan Parker also are from Billings, and the soundtrack features names familiar to Billings music fans: Dennis Nettiksimmons, John Kemmick, Parker Brown and Matt Rogers, among others.
Also crucial to the production was sound designer Tarek Fouda, whom Hart met in New York City. The project was funded in part through a Kickstarter campaign that raised some $13,000, and it also has local sponsors and a Humanities Montana grant.
Hart said it took nearly a year of editing to get the final film in shape. She would like to revisit the area yet again to update the material, now that oil prices have fallen to around $30 a barrel, but she has no definite plans to do so.
“Makoshika” is a beautifully shot film, moving at a relaxed pace from interviews with longtime residents of the area, to the impacts of the boom, to the bitter winter of concern. Hart said the goal was to examine the economic boom-and-bust cycles of the Western economy without taking a stand for or against oil production.
“I’m not pro- or anti-oil at all,” she said in Billings last week. Rather, she sees the film as a portrait of humanity.
Indeed, some of those interviewed say that periodic booms and busts are what keep the small communities in Eastern Montana and western North Dakota alive. Without periodic influxes of new capital and new workers, the harsh weather and geographic isolation could doom small communities that already have shrunk over the last century.
The film includes interviews with residents who talk about weeks of 20 below temperatures, cows frozen to the ground, and boots frozen tight to the floors of houses.
The first boom in the area came after the Homestead Act was expanded in 1909 to allow settlers 320 acres of land rather than just 160. Supporters argued that the extra land was needed to make a living in the semi-arid Western climate, and for a while it worked, thanks to a few wet years and high grain prices stoked by World War I.
But when the war ended and the rain stopped, all but the hardiest homesteaders vanished. The cycle has repeated itself with oil booms over the years, including in the 1980s, when, according to one source in the film, 180 businesses in Williston, N.D., closed within 90 days.
One interviewee, Kyle Senner, says in the film that he was the only graduate of his high school class in Richey.
The latest boom has been fueled by horizontal drilling and fracking technology, which allows oil rigs to recover oil otherwise too difficult to get at. The boom brought in new money and workers—one worker said in the film that he made $140,000 there in 2013 and paid more taxes there than his total income working in Billings before that.
The boom also brought familiar problems, including stressed infrastructure, water pollution, rising prices, crime and pumping going on uncomfortably close to some residents’ homes. In fact, the film is dedicated to Sharon Lindquist, who died shortly after the filming and who had a well within 620 feet of her house.
Those problems frustrate some longtime residents, Hart said. She said she was struck not only by the pride of longtime residents who have managed to eke out a difficult living in that country, but also by the newcomers who show some of the same enterprise and grit that brought original homesteaders to the area.
“I definitely recognize the same adventure spirit,” she said.
As for Hart, she seems to have found her life’s calling in documentary filmmaking. She developed an interest in photography in high school in Billings, then studied photography at Northwest College in Powell, Wyo. She was able to work in Germany as part of a young ambassador program arranged by the governments of the two countries, then she stayed on there for another year.
She returned to Montana, did some photography for the now defunct Grindstone magazine, then moved to New York City. She was able to do some good work there, she said, but found both the city and the work draining.
“I felt my creativity was completely dead,” she said.
Luckily, she met Fouda, and they began brainstorming film ideas. They teamed up with Tolton, who also had written for Grindstone, and with Stan Parker, who had worked for KTVQ television. After raising money for the film, the crew spent 20 days in the Bakken area, then she made a couple of follow-up visits.
After a long editing process, the film ended up at 50 minutes, which has made it difficult to place in film festivals, Hart said—too long for short film categories, too short for full-length films.
But it was shown as a “sneak peek” at the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center in Oregon in January, and it made its official premiere at noon Monday at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
The Sunday, Feb. 28, showing at the Babcock will be followed by a premiere party and by a question-and-answer session with members of the production crew, and the film will show at Richey High School at 7 p.m. Feb. 29.
The film also will show at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C., on March 18 and at Venice Film Week in Italy on Aug. 29.
In the meantime, Hart plans to begin research as soon as she gets back to California on a documentary about the state’s cannabis culture. She also is interested in working on a documentary about rodeo people.