Montana State University
Archived Spotlight story

A film rooted in a Montana State University professor's attempts to capture the blue of a frozen Montana sky has earned her a spot at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival next month.

Cindy Stillwell, a professor in MSU's Department of Media and Theatre Arts, has been selected to screen her 10-minute "High Plains Winter" at the independent film festival scheduled Jan.19-29 in Park City, Utah. Stillwell's film, a visual poem to the harsh beauty of winter in the Rockies, was one of 73 short films selected from 4,300 submissions.

Founded in 1981 by actor Robert Redford, Sundance Film Festival is considered the premier U.S. showcase for American and international independent film.

"It is an unbelievable honor to have my work recognized in this way," Stillwell said. "High Plains Winter" has also been accepted to screen at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam at the end of January.

This is the first time that a film affiliated with MSU has been selected for Sundance, although three of Stillwell's previous films were screened at Slamdance, an alternative film festival that coincides with Sundance.

"High Plains Winter" has been grouped in Sundance's "Frontiers" category of "nine films that represent new directions in filmmaking." In a press release announcing the films, Sundance said the films utilize "experimental and innovative aesthetic approaches."

Stillwell said she's worked for more than three years on "High Plains Winter," which she calls "a visual study of the winter season on the high plains." She said the inspiration for the film came from her attempt to capture the blue of a Montana sky during sub-zero temperatures in December and January. And then a funny thing happened -- Montana had several years of warm winters.

"So, instead, I tried to capture the feeling of that color blue," Stillwell said.

The film is a celluloid paean to the sculptural starkness and hard-edged beauty of northern winters and the people and animals who live in them. "I hope the film shows that the landscape in winter feels so huge," Stillwell said. "It's harsh, violent and really beautiful, too."

Filmed mostly in Montana, a portion of the film features the sport of ski-joring, in which a horse and rider pulls a skier over a series of obstacles, "which is obviously a sport born of long winters," Stillwell said.

There are no spoken parts or narration. The film features an original score by Jeff Arntsen, Bozeman musician who recently relocated to Seattle.

"High Plains Winter" is the final film in Stillwell's "Western Trilogy," a series of shorts about the contemporary rural West. Other films in the series include "The First Story" (2002), and "A Season on the Move" (2004), which won Best Experimental Film at the Rural Route Film Festival in Brooklyn and was selected as an award winner in the Film Biennial Blowout at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art..

"My next project goal is to make a longer film," Stillwell said, adding that she isn't done exploring the life-styles of the rural West."

Following her graduation from the University of Georgia, Stillwell earned a Master's of Fine Arts degree in film production from New York University. Her films have been shown around the world, including the Walker Art Museum, Melbourne International Film Festival, , and the PDX Film Festival. She recently worked on a series of prints that combine Super 8 film, digital scanning and printing while a resident at MacDowell artists' colony.

"My students were pretty excited (about her selection)," Stillwell said. "A group of (MSU students) go every year and they are going to try to go to the screenings."

Stillwell said that entering competitions such as Sundance benefits her teaching because it gives her an opportunity to see the best of contemporary film-work , to meet professionals working in film production and it keeps her up-to-date in the latest technology in post production and distribution, such as working in hi-definition formats. The festival will help her and the students network, she said.

"Sundance is an opportunity to do a lot of public relations," she said, adding that she hopes to screen "High Plains Winter" in Bozeman in the spring. "You don't know who you'll meet."

Stillwell's film will be screened four times at Sundance. The festival will feature another film with Montana roots, Cedar Sherbert's "Gesture Down .." based on a poem by the late Montana writer James Welch. For more information about Sundance and scheduled screening times, go to:

December 13, 2005