MISSOULA - It's vintage footage depicting everything from the “Blackfoot Boogie” to "blackface" — and it’s all part of Missoula’s rich and complicated history.
They are scenes included in an upcoming movie that became a seven-year passion project for a Missoula artist and filmmaker. It’s a movie that will take you through 100 years of Missoula’s home video.
They are scenes from the past, discovered on mostly locally filmed home movies over the past decades that filmmaker Andy Smetanka decided needed to be seen. He started looking at his old reels and then fell down the rabbit hole of history.
“I expanded my search beyond what I had and what some of my friends had, and some things that just kind of found their way to me over the years,” Smetanka explained. “I went to the Mansfield archive because I reckoned -- and I was right -- that they would have the single best collection of old Missoula stuff. And they did.”
This is what he believes is the first film ever of Missoula when Walter McCloud and H.O. Bell had the area’s first film cameras around 1926. The images depict the Missoula fair and company picnic and other fun. When he discovered this existed, it was a game changer.
“There’s just nothing comparable from the ’20s anywhere...at all. I mean there is stock footage and Hollywood. So much of it is just gone,” Smetanka said. “And hardly any of it looks as good as this footage that’s been dormant in this collection for decades. It's fantastic.”
“One of the biggest and most exciting discoveries was the Blackfoot Boogie for sure -- that full-on 70’s word of mouth party where in theory it is clothes optional on one side of the river and you’re supposed to have clothes on the other side. But in practice, it just did not matter. That’s where you see the naked people climbing up the cliff. Yes, that was a great joy,” Smetanka told MTN News.
The scenes are delightful —and the film itself — called “A place, sort of” — is an unnarrated music video of Missoula with all local footage and music. But not all of the movie is lighthearted.
Film from around 1938 and 1939 shows an Aber Day celebration on the University of Montana campus that includes depictions of a Klansman at a mock trial, some in blackface and a gossip magazine with a swastika on the cover. They are scenes that do not make sense from a 21st-century viewpoint.
But there is another clip that bears a cautionary warning especially since this version of the movie does not include narration
“The trigger warning is specifically about the scrubbing off — the forcible scrubbing off — [of] women’s makeup at that event which looks traumatic, and they are clearly not enjoying it,” Smetanka noted. “I can see why they asked for a trigger warning. And I am not shying away from the warning or the material. It might be a little more palatable when there is narration explaining what you see because now, you are wondering what they are doing to that person. But such are the thrills and spills that you’ll get when you see this movie in its present stage. It has been curated for you and sort of aligned but it is not being explained or justified and that is startling in places, I think.” - filmmaker Andy Smetanka
Smetanka project reminded me that MTN has a lot of old 16-millimeter reels in the station garage. It is how reporters gathered news in the mid-1970s through the early '80s. So, I asked our engineers if they could bring me the boxes and they brought box after box. This might be a fool’s errand. But we hope to work through this and see what we have that is worthy of revisiting.
“There’s this natural human tendency to nostalgia and to think about better days and how summers used to be better and everything and Missoula is changing its revealed fault lines between the old and the new old,” Smetanka said. “I don’t think you need to be any particular age. You cling to what you know. You cling to the good memories and so on. And this just does it so you can enjoy it on a mass level.”
And how about a sequel? Smetanka says yes because there’s more about Missoula’s story to be seen.
“So many things that I could not fit into this including a whole different sideline about the Wilma and a massive section of how Missoula even got its name. There was just too much to fit into the thing,” Smetanka concluded.
‘A Place—sort of” plays Friday, July 1, 2022, at 7 p.m. at the Zootown Arts Community Center on Main Street in Missoula. Tickets are $15. There will be a narrated version of the film coming this Fall.