MSU grad’s film headlines Big Sky Documentary Film Festival
by Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service
BOZEMAN – A documentary made by a Montana State University film graduate about 21 young people seeking legal relief for their claims that government harm has violated their constitutional rights and created the climate crisis will be the centerpiece film of the virtual 2021 Big Sky Documentary Festival, Feb. 19–28.
“YOUTH v GOV,” a feature-length documentary by Christi Cooper, will be available to stream from the festival’s website Feb. 24–27. A live Q&A with Cooper, a graduate of MSU’s Master of Fine Art in Science and Natural History Filmmaking program, will be online at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24.
The documentary traces the efforts of 21 youth from nine states, now ranging in age from 13 to 24, who joined as plaintiffs in Juliana v. United States. Since 2015 the plaintiffs have sued the U.S. government in the federal courts for violating their constitutional rights to life, liberty, personal safety and property through actions they claim created the climate crisis, which they say will negatively affect their future.
Cooper has filmed the plaintiffs, all represented by the Our Children’s Trust legal team, since 2016. Known as the Juliana lawsuit for its lead plaintiff, Kelsey Juliana, the case has seen both legal victories and defeats. Last year the case received a divided ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which was upheld just last week. The plaintiffs and their attorney plan to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and said they hope to approach the Biden administration to discuss settlement options.
“YOUTH v GOV,” which debuted at the virtual Doc NYC Festival in November, was produced by Cooper’s Barrelmaker Productions with Cooper serving as the director and producer. Cooper’s team includes more than a dozen fellow graduates and associates of the MSU School of Film and Photography, including co-producer Dennis Aig, professor in the School of Film and Photography in the College of Arts and Architecture.
In addition to “YOUTH v GOV,” 10 short films by MSU film graduate students will also be shown virtually at the Missoula-based Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. A Q&A with the young filmmakers will be held virtually on Feb. 21.
“The Big Sky Doc Film Festival screenings demonstrate the impressive accomplishments of our students and graduates,” Aig said. “The mastery of story and cinema in ‘YOUTH v GOV’ exemplifies how the network of outstanding talent continues to grow and endure beyond graduation.”
Cooper said that her MSU connections were essential to the making of “YOUTH v GOV.” Cooper said that when she first came to MSU with a doctorate in neuroscience and 16 years of work in the field of stem cells, she thought she would eventually make hard-science documentaries. Then she met fellow MFA graduate and humanitarian Kelly Matheson, and her focus changed.
Cooper worked with Matheson’s WITNESS project, which uses video and technology to protect and defend global human rights. Through that work she met Kelsey Juliana and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, both initial plaintiffs in cases filed against their individual states. And in 2015, Cooper began following the work of the Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust, the organization behind the legal action.
Cooper said from the beginning she was “blown away” by the energy, knowledge and commitment of the youth plaintiffs.
“That was a big introduction in the climate litigation world for me,” Cooper said. “It was a deep dive to working with youth and learning a lot about law and the public trust doctrine.”
The following spring, the plaintiffs received a ruling allowing the case to move forward in the courts.
“It seemed to me that was a big moment,” Cooper said. “I dropped everything else I was doing and approached Julia (Olson, chief legal counsel and executive director of Our Children’s Trust) and got exclusive rights to follow the story.”
For five years, Cooper and her crew crisscrossed the country, filming the plaintiffs as many of them grew into young adults. She traveled from the woods of Oregon to a barrier island off the coast of Florida threatened by rising sea levels to a reservation in Arizona. Those stories are the heart of “YOUTH v GOV.”
In addition to Aig, MSU-connected people involved in the documentary include fellow MFA graduates Liz Smith, co-producer; Danny Schmidt, camera; Stephani Gordon, camera; Andy Adkins, camera; Roshan Patel, additional camera; Sharon Pieczenic. additional camera; Samantha Bates, intern; Jason Roehrig, production assistant and Stefanie Watkins, Kickstarter trailer editing. Crew members who have undergraduate degrees from MSU’s film program included William Lake Springstead, assistant editor; Korey Kaczmarek, cinematographer and Heidi DuBose, sound.
While Cooper was making the film, the Juliana case gained national attention and momentum. The group’s story has been featured on two episodes of “60 Minutes,” on PBS and in newspaper articles across the country.
The film project gathered momentum too. Cooper received an environmental fellowship for the project from SFFilm and Vulcan Productions, and a grant from the Redford Center in 2018, which Cooper said were all pivotal. The Seattle-based Vulcan Productions, a documentary production company founded by the late Paul Allen, later signed on to the project. In 2019, Cooper was named the first Focus on Nature Artist-in-Residence at the Jacob Burns Film Center.
As the film and court case both continue to develop, Cooper said she felt that it is now time to get the kids’ story out to the public.
“It is an appropriate time for the world to learn more about the case and why it is an important case in the climate and constitutional rights world,” Cooper said. “If these young people are successful, they will not only make history, they will change the future.” •