Montana State University

Stillwell film about sandhill cranes premieres at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

February 9, 2012

Sandhill cranes are an analogy for the human journey in a documentary by MSU filmmaker and professor Cindy Stillwell. The film, "Mating for Life" debuts Feb. 19 at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula. Art by Cindy Stillwell.   High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
A film by Montana State University film professor Cindy Stillwell will premiere at 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19, at the Crystal Theater in Missoula as part of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

"Mating for Life" was selected for the festival from more than 1,000 submissions from around the world. The film is an intimate documentary about Stillwell's pilgrimage to central Nebraska to witness the annual spring migration of the sandhill cranes, which is portrayed as a metaphor for human transformation. Stillwell points out that the sandhill crane is a bird species known to mate for life, and it is one of the oldest living birds.

"As such, (the cranes) might have some things to teach us about our ability, or inability, as the case may be, to find a lifelong mate," Stillwell said. The film features footage of these ancient birds and various landscapes of Montana and the surrounding areas along the way to the Platte River in central Nebraska, all shot in HD, 16mm and super 8, with hand-drawn animations of various crane behaviors.

Stillwell has been working on the film for four years, creating the animations, shooting the footage, writing and editing the story.

"The most obvious similarity between cranes and human beings and the one I think many of us can relate to, is the fact that cranes mate for life," Stillwell said. "It is a romantic idea to us, because we have all been taught that human beings also mate for life. And yet I look around me and I see many people who do not. In the film, I use myself as an example of someone who has not mated for life. What does this mean? I wonder at the implications of the fact that fewer and fewer of us seem to be finding a lifelong mate. This is sort of the jumping off point for the film, which is based on a series of questions I think we all ask ourselves at some point as we turn toward midlife. What are we going to leave behind? And how do you answer this question if you have not lived a traditional trajectory, with marriage and kids? So the film is about the cranes, but it's also about my own search for meaning through studying cranes. This line of questioning drew me to the cranes' story. I do not think I am alone in being drawn to sandhill cranes in this way."

Stillwell's films have screened at venues such as Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and Rotterdam Film Festival. She has been an artist fellow at MacDowell Artist Colony, Ucross Foundation and Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. This is her second time screening at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

The ninth annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival is scheduled from Feb. 17-26 in downtown Missoula.

For more information about "Mating for Life," go to or

Cindy Stillwell (406) 994-6521,