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Cowboy Love Stories

Inaugural Sun Valley Film Festival highlights Idaho films


"I wrote the story right here in this room," said filmmaker Kieran Donahue, smiling at the heirlooms that hung on the walls and littered tables in his home.

These family treasures were Donahue's inspiration for his first feature film, Lost River, one of 11 Idaho films that will be screened at the inaugural Sun Valley Film Festival.

With Sun Valley's posh ski resort and renowned restaurants, it seems only natural that a multi-genre film festival featuring local and international filmmakers would find its home there. According to Festival Director Dana Plasse, the Sun Valley Film Festival was an initiative of Executive Director Teddy Grennan and was conceived of as a cultural affair to fill the void of an independent film festival in a town that has long been a getaway for Hollywood stars.

The festival's lineup includes shorts, documentaries, feature films and even web series. And there's an entire category dedicated to Idaho films.

"People are making movies and it's wonderful to showcase all of the hidden talent that's all over the state," said Plasse. "What's so fun about seeing Idaho film is that every aspect of the state is represented in our festival--so there's a bunch of ski movies, a bunch of kayaking. It's their cowboy love stories."

The Idaho Film category caught the attention of many local filmmakers like Donahue, who is also running for Canyon County sheriff. Donahue had never considered becoming a filmmaker until his family inspired him to script the story for Lost River. After confronting the personal crisis of his twin brother's illness, Donahue decided to make a dramatic movie about "the unbreakable bond of twin brothers," in which one is faced with cancer and asks the other to visit their old home in Lost River in order to retrieve a family heirloom as a parting wish.

"There's nothing he's going to ask me that I won't do for him," said Donahue, explaining the plot.

Like the rest of the Idaho films, Lost River was filmed in the state, with the crew taking trips to Mackay and riding horses to elevations of 10,000 feet.

"They used their pack horses to bring their gear to certain locations," explained Plasse. "Where on Earth are you going to hear a story like that for a film being made? It would be incredible if there were more Idaho stories told on the bigger film scene."

Another film that had its crew hiking up mountains and traveling by horseback is Soda Springs, directed by Michael Feifer and featuring Idaho-born actor and script co-author Jay Pickett. The movie tells the story of Eden Jackson, who gets a second chance at a life in his hometown after spending eight years away.

"I seldom get the opportunity to make a straightly intense drama about life, about people, about the human condition. So having gotten the opportunity with Soda Springs really inspired me," Feifer said.

Although Feifer isn't an Idaho native, a lot of crew members are--like Executive Producer Gary Hollie, cinematographer Jeff Smith, score composer Steve Fulton and Jan Larison.

"It became a labor of love and took on a life of its own," explained Pickett. "The right people came along at the right time, and the people who didn't share our vision fell by the wayside."

Cowboy films and the countryside are popular themes among Idaho filmmakers highlighted at the Sun Valley Film Festival, including the documentary Gathering Remnants, by Idaho resident and native Californian Kendall Nelson. The movie was born from a coffee table book Nelson produced with photographs she'd taken of cowboys.

"I had all these beautiful pictures of the cowboys, but I wasn't really able to let them speak for themselves," explained Nelson."The cowboys themselves were telling the story, kind of a look into the psyche of the cowboy and the personality of the cowboy."

Gathering Remnants isn't the only film Nelson is presenting. She will also show The Greater Good, a documentary focused on the controversial subject of adverse effects from vaccines. Nelson described her responsibility as a documentary filmmaker as an obligation to "tell both sides of the story and to let people speak for themselves and not put words in their mouths."

Short films will also be showcased in the Film Festival. Idaho's Christian Lybrook will present Crawlspace, a film about a man returning to the childhood home that harbors the mystery of his brother's disappearance. The story was inspired by Lybrook's fear of his own attic after he bought his house some years ago and his prolonged unwillingness to look in it.

Lybrook gathered fellow Idaho filmmakers Tom Hamilton and Chris Brock and came up with the idea for the short film, which Lybrook describes as, "the story of a man coming to terms with guilt, which can be a very heavy and dark thing."

Most of these Idaho filmmakers are just getting started in their careers and taking advantage of the opportunities the state has to offer them.

"The state is beautiful and diverse geographically," said Soda Springs' Pickett. "We knew we would get a lot of production value here by calling in favors from friends and family, and we could have a great time doing it."

The ease of making films in Idaho may be far from the convenience of Los Angeles, but Nelson explained that technology facilitates the work of a filmmaker in a remote place.

"I've found that you just have to really create your own work if you're going to live in a place like Idaho," Nelson said.

From building creepy crawl space sets to carrying equipment by horseback, filmmaking in Idaho is a growing movement. And no matter what limitations filmmakers might encounter, their ultimate goals are undeterred.

"I've just been amazed and that's the kind of thinking that I think is wonderful of making films in Idaho, because of how people live here and they're using their resources and their know-how to make these amazing things work," said Plasse.

The Sun Valley Film Festival will open on Thursday, March 15, and a lineup of movies, short films and film-related events will continue through Sunday, March 18.