By: Logan Sowash
When planning to go to Heartland Film Festival this weekend, I realized that the list of films that I really wanted to see was fewer than I imagined. As a response, I decided to just sign up for films that somewhat interested me. While looking for films on my first day, I came across a synopsis describing a documentary called The Big Lonely. A picture of a man feeding a dog in the middle of the woods paired with the amount of praise given in the description sold the film to me. As I sat in the theater with the dimmed lights, my predicted expectations were far from what I saw on screen.
According to Heartland’s official guide book, The Big Lonely is about a man named Michael Nelms as he documents his seventh year of isolation. With only himself as the cameraman, Michael takes us on a journey through his quiet, day-by-day living situation through different seasons while he tells his life story leading up to the present. This style of camerawork makes the story more engaging and emotional as the cinematography, while expectedly shaky in several sections, gives Michael the perfect outlet to tell his story. It feels 100% real throughout its 82-minute run time which makes the film even more interesting than it already was initially.
This film does so many things right. First off, it has a character with such a layered and experienced history that you just can’t help but enjoy listening to his stories and watching him fight to survive in the wilderness. The score is simplistic yet perfectly used in the film, the cinematography has moments of really good shots that really capture the harshness yet beauty of the wilderness and the story is captivating to an incredible degree. It is insane how well made the film is despite having one person handle the shooting all by himself. It makes the film much more impressive on a technical standpoint.
Despite all the praise I’ve been giving this film, there is one thing about the film that really bogged it down: pacing. The film fluctuates in pace all throughout the film, making some parts really engaging while others drag on to a sluggish degree. This is understandable due to the impromptu nature of the plot but it is hard not to notice it, especially during an out of place segment where a fade to black and white text describe the character’s action throughout a long period of time. Luckily enough, the director of the film was there and gave me answers that satisfied my issues, saying that the film was difficult to edit due to 300 hours of footage which is also why that out of place segment was in the film because the cut footage described in the white text really bogged down the movie and didn’t add much value to the story. These explanations personally give my gripes with the film a pass though I believe unaware viewers will have those same difficulties nevertheless.
In the end, The Big Lonely was a fantastic start to my Heartland Festival experience. It captured a feeling of realism that only the best documentaries can duplicate, making it a top tier documentary in my book. It’s sad, funny, interesting, informative and downright captivating in select scenes. With Michael Nelms’ life engrained in my mind, I cannot recommend this film enough. Definitely check it out and engross yourself into his life of isolated beauty.