American Portraits in the Flathead Valley

Local filmmaker partnered with PBS this summer in a nationwide storytelling project with a series of short documentaries

By Maggie Dresser
Lakeside documentary filmmaker Ross Yarrow. Courtesy photo.

After moving six times in the last five years, 24-year-old filmmaker Ross Yarrow is familiar with adapting to new environments and getting to know people quickly.

Originally from Kansas, Yarrow wound up in Lakeside about a year ago after landing an internship with an architecture firm doing documentary work and has since partnered with Montana PBS for “American Portrait,” a nationwide storytelling project for which he shot a series of short profile pieces.

“It’s cross sectioning their lives during 2020,” Yarrow said. “There’s this notion it’s based around COVID or riots or emotionally charged ideas that are happening, but really it’s much more than that.”

Yarrow shot three films in the Flathead Valley each sharing different stories, including a Swiss man moving to Lakeside, a fashion designer and musicians coping with the pandemic.

While Yarrow is relatively new to the Flathead, aside from working in Glacier National Park for a summer in college, he says the project allowed him to immerse himself in the valley.

“It’s always interesting, you jump into a community and you’re quickly trying to adapt to how people act and you’re working hard at building relationships and understand how people function,” Yarrow said. “Being able to shoot for PBS demystified the valley for me. In the news right now people are generalized, but the closer you look, you realize that’s not how people are.”

Yarrow met musicians in the jazz group, Barrel Stove, over the summer playing at a resort and invited them to be a part of the project. He also worked with a fashion designer in Kalispell.

While it’s part of a 50th anniversary project for PBS, Yarrow says he was encouraged to use his own editorial voice in the roughly two- to three-minute long films and was only given a general outline with prompts, including questions like, “What keeps you up at night?”

“They really encouraged us to use our own artistic voice to relate each individual story,” Yarrow said. “It was the perfect balance between structure and creative freedom.”

Yarrow met other PBS filmmakers across the country through Zoom calls and says each artist had their own personal style embedded in their films, creating authentic and unique voices. After Yarrow shot the project in July, he’s been working on smaller projects on Instagram and social media outlets with some larger projects on hold. He wants to continue shooting documentary films and combine his passions for natural sciences and filmmaking.

While Yarrow does mostly contract work for nonprofit organizations or seasonal work in national parks, he will likely continue moving frequently until he finds a home base, which he says could potentially be in Montana.

“It was really a privilege to shoot this project in the valley,” Yarrow said. “It brought it closer to home for myself.”

As a somewhat new face in the valley, Yarrow is now living in West Glacier and says interviewing people for the project helped him form an intimate relationship with his subjects and the valley.

“(The project) tried to promote commonality, and the closer you look at people, the more willing you are to understand them and that there’s a lot of good deep within,” Yarrow said. “Interviewing people is one of my favorite things to do and you quickly get to know and understand and accept them. I think it’s a really powerful tool.”

To view “American Portrait,” visit https://www.pbs.org/american-portrait/story/13115/barrel-stove-whitefish-mt-the-tradition-i-carry-on-is.

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