Team 17 members, left to right, Bonnie Peatross, Norma Sachar, Al Faas
and Rich Jackson show off Docutah commemorative T shirts earned by the team in its six years of evaluating films for the documentary film festival.
Not shown, team members Claire Kirchen, Dennis Smith and Heidi Smith.
Photo by Linda Faas

Films are their thing, and documentaries their passion.   For the past six years a group of Mesquite film fans have participated in the film evaluation process for the Docutah International Film Festival.  Docutah is celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, quite an accomplishment for a college-sponsored film festival that features only nonfiction documentary films.  Under the direction of Dixie State University film professor Phil Tuckett, this festival is unique for its longevity and high quality of films it attracts from all over the  world.

The Mesquite community became involved in 2013 when resident Ken Cook and theatre owner

Ernie Hoffman persuaded Tuckett to hold a “Best of Fest” film fest in Mesquite following the yearly festival at the St George college campus.  With significant financial support from the Eureka Casino Resort, Mesquite was treated to a three-day mini-fest that featured the most compelling and best-made films shown in the Docutah festival that runs through Labor Day week each year.

Docutah International Film Festival is unique in that it is based in a university film department, headed by Tuckett who won 3O Emmys for his filming of NFL games.  His students ran the early festivals and each year submit their own work to compete with films received from film-makers all over the world. Soon hundreds of films were arriving, overwhelming the film department.  Thus, community screening teams were added to help with the time consuming process of rating each film submission.  DSU reached out to Mesquite to aid in that process.   Using a definitive rating sheet of film characteristics, each film is reviewed by three groups to evaluate technical quality of the work and the significance and timeliness of the film’s message.  About 40 top-rated films are chosen for the festival.

In February 2014, four Mesquite friends attended an organizational meeting at the Eureka and  volunteered to evaluate as many films as they could reasonably watch over the next three months.  At least two other teams of screeners also formed in Mesquite that year.

Early on, Michele Burkett, Judith Hetem, Norma Sachar and Linda Faas, the group known as Team 17, settled into a comfortable format of meeting at a member’s home for “dinner and a movie” on Sunday afternoons.   Before long, Judith was volunteering to host every week.  Having lost her husband to cancer, she enjoyed the companionship of the group dispelling the quiet in her house, and she loved to cook.  Nobody objected because she even offered everybody the opportunity to cuddle her three loveable cats during the film screening.  Not surprisingly, films that champion animal causes score very highly with Team 17.

Through six winters Team 17 has convened to repeat the process.  The team’s cast of characters has changed over the years.  Al Faas, a former Hollywood prop master and cameraman, joined the winter he was stricken with lymphoma.  He found the weekly screenings at Judith’s house to be a therapeutic activity where his expertise was valued.  Maybe taking the pulse of the worldwide human condition through film gave him a better feeling about his own future.  Documentaries are not just celluloid escapism; they educate, illuminate, and broaden viewpoints.

Michele Burkett acted as team leader and technician for several years but her job forced her to step aside from that role.  Fortunately for the less tech-savvy members, the film distribution process became much more user-friendly.  From the early years of retrieving and returning DVDs to Dixie Campus, the festival adopted an online format using FilmFreeway and Vimeo to allow teams to simply pull the film from a website and project on a smart TV, then submit an electronic evaluation via Google Docs.

Original team member Judith moved to Taos in 2016, leaving a hospitality void that others struggled to match.  Work and travel plans created scheduling nightmares, so the team widened its membership to a mix of eight people this past season to be able to field a minimum group of four to screen films on a regular basis.  In February 2019, Team 17 members included Burkett, Sachar, Faas, Claire Kirchen, Bonnie Peatross, Rich Jackson, Dennis Smith and Heidi Nielsen Smith.

Rotating from home to home, the tradition of watching a new film, enjoying good food and wine and trading opinions continued. Through it all, Team 17 stands as the only remaining Mesquite team of Docutah screeners.

“Docutah films have been a window on the world for me,” says Claire Kirchen.  I watch many more documentaries on Netflix now because of this exposure.

“Who knew A Rodent of Unusual Size would be a festival winner?” comments Al Faas.  “I never heard of a nutria (the rodent), and wouldn’t have guessed it could have a negative impact of the coast of Louisiana!”  “Besides that,” he continues, “seeing “Flying the Feathered Edge,” the life story of legendary test pilot and barnstormer Bob Hoover, compelled us to attend the Reno Air Show, where we met him in person.”

Norma Sachar and Bonnie Peatross loved the movie, One Ocean, One People, One Canoe about the Hawaiian navigators who replicated an ocean canoe sailed by Polynesians centuries ago.  “Sriracha” has been Linda Faas’ all-time favorite, telling the story of Vietnamese refugee David Tran who formed a in Southern California that produces an exotic chili sauce native to Southeast Asia.  He named his company Huy Fong, for the ship that carried him to the U.S. when Saigon fell.  His sauce, and his story, are known worldwide.

Every team member seems to love the remarkable biographies that they have screened, from movie star Heddy Lemarr who helped invent a WWII radio guidance system that was a precursor to early wifi, to common people who show uncommon valor in overcoming adversity and helping their fellow man.

Ken Cook continues to be involved with Docutah.   As Director of Festival Outreach, he attends film festivals all over the world promoting Docutah and forging ties with film makers and festival producers.  Ken looks to the day when Mesquite might again host a “Best of Fest” event for Docutah.  A documentary format seems to be a perfect match for Mesquite, but various issues of venue and sponsorship have kept that dream from again becoming reality.   In the meantime, Mesquite residents can take a short drive to St George to attend the 2019 Docutah International Film Festival, September 2-7, at the Red Cliff Theatre complex.

You can count on Team 17 to return to screening films for Docutah 2020.  It’s what they do!