With more than 200 movies screening at five venues, attracting 20,000 attendees over the course of 10 days, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival isn’t just the largest film festival in the state. It’s also the largest arts event in Missoula all year round.
With the surfeit of quality films, it can be daunting trying to decide what you want to see. Here’s quick guide to the festival’s myriad movies and related activities.
OPENING NIGHT FILM
The festival always kicks off with the Montana premiere sponsored by HBO.
This year’s film looks promising for music fans. “Mavis!” covers the life and career of renowned singer Mavis Staples. She started out with her family band, the Staples Singers, which had gospel/R&B hits like “I’ll Take You There,” through to a solo career collaborating with Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.
The film screens at 6 p.m. Friday, Feb. 19, at the Wilma Theatre.
When it comes to finding films with subjects you’re interested in, the festival’s “strand” system is your best friend.
Each year, the organizers divide the movies into thematic strands, all listed on the website. Want movies by filmmakers from in state? Check out the “Made in Montana” strand. If you’re into the outdoors, try “Sports and Adventure,” “Best of the Wild and Scenic Film Tour” or “Waterworks,” an entire set of movies related to water.
“Indigenous Visions” collects movies from around the world about native culture, issues and people. “Sights and Sounds” gathers artists, musicians and visually driven films under one tent. “American Portraits” lists all the films that profile interesting individuals. “Past Projections” has historical documentaries.
One of the new strands, “Peace and Conflict,” focuses on war and conflict around the world. “Speaking Truth to Power” keys in on documentaries with challenging subjects such as the invention and use of the Taser, or the FBI’s terrorism informant programs.
One paradox, though, is that the best documentaries can stir your interest in a subject you previously ignored. With the right subject and direction, they can suck you in.
“Those, in a lot of way, are the hardest ones for us to sell, because people will read that synopsis and maybe the subject doesn’t interest them – but the film is so good,” said Michael Workman, festival coordinator and associate programmer.
Workman, who helps make the selections, said documentaries are one of the festival’s strongest points.
“Even if you’re not interested in the subject, those films will transcend that. We always have a lot of those,” he said.
One way to account for your own biases is by consulting the list of films selected for the competitions, in best feature, best short (15 to 30 minutes), best mini (under 15 minutes) and the Big Sky Award, for movies about the American West.
These are the movies that the festival committee thinks stand out among the heavy competition, so you can count on a solid film even if the description doesn’t strike you.
Each year, the festival screens highlights or entire bodies of work from the best documentary filmmakers.
This year, the directors are Ondi Timoner and Lucy Walker, both award-winning, innovative filmmakers who have hit a midcareer stride, said Gita Saedi Kiely, Big Sky’s executive director.
Walker is “taking film to the next level,” Saedi Kiely said. As proof, Walker will share a new documentary that experiments with virtual reality. It will be available to watch throughout the day at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography.
Her previous works include acclaimed documentaries “Waste Land” (2010), which follows a contemporary artist, Vik Muniz, as he collaborates with the garbage pickers at Jardim Gramacho, the world’s largest landfill.
She’ll also share “The Crash Reel” (2013), which examines the recovery of Olympic snowboarder Kevin Pearce, who suffered a traumatic head injury in 2009 while attempting a risky “double-cork.” The film follows Pearce in the aftermath, when his family rallies by his side and tries to dissuade him from a life-threatening return to the sport.
Timoner’s work has a more activist bent, said Saedi Kiely. “We Live in Public” examines the social experiments of an Internet entrepreneur, many of which predate the sharing culture later created by social media.
Both filmmakers will be in attendance for the retrospectives. Walker’s will take place the first weekend, and Timoner’s the second.
The name DocShop might convince some that it’s intended only for filmmakers.
Organizers want people to know that the five-day media conference is for activists, nonprofits, businesses or anybody who uses media in their work, said Saedi Kiely.
Held in collaboration with the University of Montana and Montana State University, the theme this year is films as a catalyst for social change.
“We have people coming from all over the country who have gone viral with their campaigns,” she said. “They’re going to talk about their successes, tools of the trade and strategies,” she said.
For registration information, go to bigskyfilmfest.org/docshop.
“People are always asking, ‘What can I bring my kids to?’ “ Saedi Kiely said.
Most of these brand-new movies are unrated and haven’t been through the ratings system.
So organizers recruited local educators, teachers, librarians and more to screen movies and determine which are appropriate for kids.
The final movies will be screened Monday, Feb. 22, through Friday, Feb. 26, at the Roxy Theater, with convenient after-school time slots.
Most are intended for third grade and up, but Friday’s film will be all ages. Go to bigskyfilmfest.org for a full list.
The subjects of two documentaries will perform live during the festival.
A new documentary, “Who is Lydia Loveless?” serves as an introduction to the 20-something singer and bandleader from Ohio, who cuts her alt-country with the impolite edge of old rock ‘n’ roll and punk.
Festival-goers may be familiar with director Gorman Bechard from “Every Everything: The Music, Life & Times of Grant Hart,” a documentary about the Husker Du member that screened at Big Sky last year.
Loveless will play the Top Hat on Thursday, Feb. 28, at 8 p.m. Watch bigskyfilmfest.org for ticket information as the date approaches.
Former Soul Asylum member George McKelvey will perform Monday, Feb. 22, in conjunction with “The Fight to Follow” after a screening of the movie.
Ajax Broome and Chris Richardson of local Warm Springs Productions directed the movie, which chronicles McKelvey’s struggle to balance his career as a musician in Minneapolis with a full-time job, fatherhood, and a solo recording project. The movie is having its Montana premiere at the festival.
TEEN MENTOR DAYS
The festival is holding a two-day mentorship workshop for Montana teens on Feb. 27 and 28.
Kids will learn to film, edit and complete a short movie, in this case public service announcements on cyber-bullying and global warming.
To register or for more information, go to bigskyfilmfest.org/docshop/mentor_days_for_teens.
IF YOU GO
The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival takes place from Friday, Feb. 19, through Sunday, Feb. 28, at various venues in downtown Missoula, including the Wilma, Roxy and Crystal theaters and the Top Hat, in addition to Shakespeare and Co. Go to bigskyfilmfest.org for a complete schedule and ticket information.