In 2010, Michael Workman screened his first film at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.
"An Anonymous Rebellion" was a 10-minute movie about two teenage graffiti artists in Missoula. Workman was their age — 15 and a junior at Hellgate High School — and he made it as part of a youth mentorship program at Big Sky.
His mentor was Travis Morss, a festival staffer who recalls that Workman's attempt was better than many films he'd made in his first couple years of college.
"I could tell that he had a knack for it at an early age," said Morss, who now counts Workman as a close friend.
The program helped students make a film, and they also got a pass to the annual festival's screenings.
"It opened my eyes to all the different forms in documentary filmmaking," Workman said. They weren't just talking-heads talking policy. They were character studies and narratives and experimental, pushing the boundaries of movies.
Some seven years later, Workman is making his largest filmmaking project yet: a 30-minute movie called "From Parts Unknown," about the world of backyard, do-it-yourself wrestling in Spokane. Its participants develop personae and stage often-violent matches as a form of cathartic self-expression.
Workman has found time to work on the film in between his other gigs. The 24-year-old is now one of the key members of the film festival's small staff, serving as associate programmer and acting as a designer for their print and online products.
As associate programmer, he helps vet the avalanche of submissions that greet the open call. Last year, for instance, 1,600 hopefuls were winnowed down to more 150 for the 11-day event.
Programming is a tag-team effort with programming director Doug Hawes-Davis, aided by a team of part-timers who help sift through the pile.
"It's a good balance between the two of us," Hawes-Davis said. "We're both interested in artistic treatments, but documentary is obviously much more than that," Hawes-Davis said. They consider its journalistic merits, emotion, drama, narrative drive and other factors.
Hawes-Davis said Workman is particularly strong at weighing the artistic side of things, and finding films that have an innovative approach while still telling a story.
"I trust his judgment completely in that realm," he said.
After that high school mentorship program, Workman studied media arts at Hellgate with instructor Beth Cole, taking the medium more seriously than the goofy films he used to make with friends and post on YouTube. With Cole, he made fiction shorts, and outside school took time to volunteer at Big Sky.
He enrolled at the University of Montana and volunteered on the media team, filming during festival events. He picked up photography and shot video and stills at Total Fest, the city's independent, underground rock festival, serving as its art director.
In 2013, Morss, now the programming director, hired him on staff. Workman, who was studying for a BFA in art and a BA in filmmaking at the University of Montana, had the dual skill sets for the job. Morss said he brought him in because he's one of those people who can succeed at "anything he wants to do in terms of art."
"As he's gotten older, Michael and I have become pretty good friends," he said. "Now he's my go-to guy for anything."
Since 2015, Workman and Hawes-Davis have worked in tandem on the programming. Workman oversees the programming platforms and incoming submissions. Hawes-Davis oversees the group of programmers and they deliberate on the selections, competitions and retrospectives.
Outside the festival, Workman has staged art installations around town and on campus. At the Real Good art space, for instance, he invited gallery-goers to dress formally and eat an unappealing pink gelatin for "Masses," an interactive comment on consumerism. An experimental film installation, “There are many like it, but this one is mine,” examined masculinity and weapons, screening at FrontierSpace.
"From Parts Unknown," meanwhile, is his largest project.
Initially, he planned on writing a fiction film about wrestling after reading Chris Hedges' sociological discussion of wrestling storylines and poverty in "Empire of Illusion."
Montana doesn't have any small wrestling leagues, so he began looking online and found Spokane Anarchy Wrestling on YouTube. They jury-rig their rings in backyards and parks, and put on sometimes-brutal competitions for crowds of up to 80 people.
He reached out to the league on Facebook and asked he and some friends could come shoot reference footage for the movie.
After returning a second time, the wrestling community opened up more. He and Sean Rudolf, his producer and sound recordist, kept going back for their monthly events for three months straight. The fiction film had been sidelined for a cinema verite documentary.
Nonfiction films take patience. You have to build trust with subjects and develop a rapport. It takes time to even ensure that you've found the right story. In their case, they were three months in when they met their lead characters: two cousins named Jesse and Jay Lawson.
Jesse started the league with friends when he was 16 years old. When he met the filmmakers, he was preparing for his final match: While he's only 27, backyard wrestling had taken a toll on his body, and he was preparing to fight one last time, against Jay, and hand over the league.
Jesse opened up to filmmakers about his life and why he wrestles. His parents, now both dead, were fans. He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and uses wrestling as a way to express himself through his manic-depressive "Madman" character.
"From Parts Unknown" has a lean team. Workman and Rudolf were the only two working on site. With only a few people, they get more insightful interviews. Workman and Rudolf co-directed a short film, "Constructed Situations," about Missoula artist Jack Metcalf, that won a top honor at the Audience Awards Art Montana competition.
Back in Missoula, filmmaker Ryan Seitz ("Freeload" and "Skips Stones for Fudge") signed on as a producer and consulting editor.
They paid for it out of pocket, but are raising money for post-production costs.
"Our goal is an empathetic lens" on their lives, he said.