The staff at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, the largest film festival in the state, had a bigger pile of submissions than ever for its 2015 outing.
In the past year, the festival was announced as a qualifier for the Academy Awards for the "Shorts" and "Mini Docs" categories. What's more, MovieMaker magazine named it one of 50 film festivals worth the entry fee.
Those acknowledgements pushed the number of submissions up to the 1,400 range – a 50 percent increase over the year before, according to programming director Doug Hawes-Davis.
They whittled it down to 154 films, which were announced this past week.
One of the two filmmakers featured in this year's retrospectives is Sam Green, best known for "The Weather Underground," a 2002 film about the group of 1960s radicals.
For the Big Sky festival, he's bringing two documentaries that deserve the description "unique."
Green has been experimenting with live performances of his documentaries, in which he stands on stage, narrating and cuing footage on the big screen while a band performs the score.
For "The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller," a movie about the polymath and inventor of the geodesic dome, Green will have musical backing from Yo La Tengo, the venerable New Jersey indie rock trio. They have years of experience live-scoring documentaries, including a 2011 performance at Big Sky. The concert is set for Wednesday, Feb. 11, at 8 p.m. in the Wilma.
Hawes-Davis said it's a "very rare opportunity" to see Green's project. He has not released any recorded versions of the film, and the Buckminster Fuller documentary has been performed only a handful of times.
A New York Times reviewer called it, "a singular experience, and a collective one, with the potential for human connection and human error." Other reviews praised both the complex look at a complex man, and the precise dream-pop score.
In addition to screenings of his standard-format documentaries, Green also will perform "The Measure of All Things," a film about Guinness record-holders from around the world. The live soundtrack will be provided by the Quavers, a band featuring Brendan Canty of Fugazi, T. Griffin and Catherine McRae. That concert will take place at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 14, in the Dennison Theatre.
The other retrospective filmmaker this year is John Cohen, who began his career as a musician during the folk revival with the New Lost City Ramblers. As a photographer, he documented the scenes in still images, and eventually transitioned to a career in documentary film – focusing on the music of Appalachia and South America.
In addition to a slate of his films, Cohen will play a concert with the Montana band Balled & Burlap on Sunday, Feb. 6, at the Top Hat, and share original prints of his images of early folk icons such as Bob Dylan at the Brink gallery on First Friday.
Tickets for all three live events are now on sale at bigskyfilmfest.org.
"A lot of amazing things are happening in documentary film right now that we're trying to embrace this year," said executive director Gita Saedi Kiely.
"We're really bringing new and innovative expressions to Missoula that I don't think have really come here before."
One of those new elements are interactive documentaries, which will be presented at the Missoula Art Museum starting on Feb. 10, free and open to the public.
As in years past, the films have been divided into topical threads to help festival-goers find documentaries that suit their interests.
One stand-out in the "Made in Montana" thread is "And We Were Young," Missoula artist Andy Smetanka's stop-motion animated oral history of American doughboys' experiences during World War I. The 115-minute film has been "three years and 250,000 frames" in the making.
"It's totally unique," Hawes-Davis said. "I don't think anything's ever been made like it before. That's not an exaggeration."
Other Montana films include "Bard in the Backcountry," a full-length documentary about Montana Shakespeare in the Parks, and "Fishtail," a meditation on a Western American art expert's 2,000-acre ranch.
The "True Crime" thread looks over law-related subjects: death-row executioners and wrongful convictions; crusaders for animal cruelty laws; CIA whistle-blowers and more.
The "Stranger than Fiction" category is true to its name, including titles on Fins who play leaves as musical instruments and scientists pursuing immortality for humankind.
The "Sports and Adventure" thread includes the Montana premiere of "Being Evel," a 100-minute film about the Butte-born daredevil and our culture's thirst for spectacle.
"Sights and Sounds" covers films about visual art, entertainment, culture and music. It includes a world premiere of a movie about Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy's Solid Sound Festival, directed by Canty and Christopher Green. The duo chronicled Wilco on the road and in concert for 2009's "Ashes of American Flags."
In honor of the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, there's a selection of movies dedicated to people who live with disabilities: "Bashir's Vision," a short film about a blind boxer, and "On Beauty," which follows a former fashion photographer who sets out to redefine conventional views of who is attractive and why.
A new thread this year is "Schoolhouse Docs." The staff worked with local educators to pick some films that are appropriate for children and will screen them in after-school time slots for kids and their parents.
The threads, which overlap, are filled out with "Natural Facts," on the world around us; "Vietnam: A Commemoration," in honor of the anniversary of the end of the war; "Younger Than Yesterday," on aging; and "The American West," which explores the region we call home.
For professionals or aspiring filmmakers, the annual DocShop from Feb. 9-13 offers a full slate of workshops, panels and activities. It culminates with the Big Sky Pitch, in which participants can show their work to industry professionals.