Travis Wilkerson has some history in Montana.
The director — who is presenting a career retrospective this weekend at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival — moved to Butte with his family in the early 1980s, attending Butte High and Montana Tech.
This decade or so in Montana informed his first feature, “An Injury to One,” which examines the unsolved lynching of Frank Little, a labor organizer who visited Butte in 1917.
“When I went to make the film, I realized I had researched that since I was in high school,” Wilkerson said. “All the original documents that I used in that film I’d had since I was a teenager.”
It was the beginning of what he noticed was his preferred work cycle, in making films about his father’s time in Vietnam (“Distinguished Flying Cross”), a Cuban revolutionary filmmaker (“Accelerated Underdevelopment”) or the 1930s Los Angeles police department (“Los Angeles Red Squad”).
“Each project that I work on gestates for about 10 or 12 years,” he said. “I’m digesting them in my own mind for many, many years before I ever work on them.”
His newest film, “Did You Wonder Who Fired the Gun?” released in 2017, is one of his most personal. The movie follows Wilkerson as he tries to track down details about a murder committed by his great-grandfather in 1946, who shot a black man and got away with it.
Wilkerson interviews his family members, residents in the small town where his grandfather lived, and finds roots of institutional racism that go beyond an overlooked murder.
The movie is narrated by Wilkerson and he’s done a handful of screenings where he provides live narration, described by NPR as “a unique piece of performance art.”
“The extraordinary power of seeing Wilkerson on stage, swelling with anger and raw emotion, cannot be reproduced,” the article notes. (Wilkerson will perform live narration at the Big Sky Festival screening).
Wilkerson — who’s experimented with performance art outside of filmmaking — prefers the live narration because it offers a less flattering portrait. He is there in front of the audience, sometimes messing up lines and getting sweaty.
“It really kind of reduces my presence in a positive way,” he said. “The notion that I would be sharing it live first was very important to me.”
It also opens up a conversation with the audience, which is a primary purpose of his movies, which often have open-ended narratives and unclear paths through their story.
Wilkerson said he’s been “increasingly skeptical” of closed narratives throughout his career, noticing live never works in three-act structures. Instead, tales are unresolved, murders unsolved, feelings unsaid.
“I’m less interested in the flowing river and I’m more drawn to the estuary where fresh and sea water collide,” he said.
He compared his films to early music by R.E.M., who he remembers driving to Bozeman to see in their earliest college DIY days. The group was known at that time for obtuse lyrics that were purposefully mumbled and slurred by lead singer Michael Stipe.
“That’s stuck with me,” Wilkerson said. “What’s more interesting to me is what did you hear and what do you think about it?”
If a sequence in the movie is unclear, Wilkerson doesn’t want viewers turning to him for answers.
“Why does it matter what my intention is?” he said. “I just love that. … I love that relationship with an audience.”
Early on, Wilkerson was inspired by his time in Butte to stay in Montana and make films solely about the state. Over time, that faded as he did other projects, but the invitation to Big Sky (for his first retrospective in the United States) dusted up old feelings.
“What was interesting to me about Montana was that everything was there,” Wilkerson said.
It had the landscape, both pure and spoiled; indigenous people, both proud and beaten down; workers, both conservative and pro-labor, and the big sky that represented both freedom and complete isolation.
“These ideas were strong, they were interesting,” he said. “There’s a space to create meaningful stories in small spaces that can resonate with the world.”