Ross brothers

Bill and Turner Ross are two of the featured filmmakers at the 2020 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival unveiled on Wednesday its line-up of almost 150 nonfiction movies that will screen in Missoula from Feb. 14-23.

This year, the 17th annual event was programmed by a guest, Joanne Feinberg, an experienced filmmaker and festival director. 

The festival, the largest of its kind in the West, keeps attracting more submissions. 

"We hit another record this year," said executive director Rachel Gregg, and "it just keeps climbing."

"The quality of submissions was really outstanding and it was not an easy job to cull 2,000 submissions down to 150," said Feinberg, who vetted the selections with a team of about 10 people.

With 84 countries represented, Feinberg expected to see common themes, such as immigration, migration and climate change.

"It was broader, much broader than that," she said. A common thread was "the human experience, and trying to make sense of our changing world."

Subjects range from artificial intelligence, Internet memes like Pepe the Frog, extreme ski-BASE jumping, the American bison, dance skating, the decline of the Yellow Cab, Palestinian textiles, and more. The films have been posted on bigskyfilmfest.org, with strands like "Nature and Environment," "Arts and Culture" and "Indigenous Stories" to help people find movies by subject.

She encouraged people to see the blocks of short films, since "documentary shorts are having a renaissance at the moment. There's so many wonderful outlets for them to be seen, and more filmmakers engaging in that category." They're scheduled in blocks, so people can see a globe-spanning number of subjects in an hour and a half or less. 


A new feature this year is a "centerpiece" movie that organizers want to spotlight during the middle of the festival. David Garrett Byars' "Public Trust" examines the political threats to public lands in the United States, including Montana. Journalist Hal Herring, who lives in Augusta, is a central figure. Byars also interviewed Herring extensively in "No Man's Land," his 2017 movie about the occupation of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. It won the Big Sky Award here that year.

The festival selected two pairs of filmmakers for its annual retrospectives, which survey the careers of accomplished directors through screenings of their work with the artists themselves there to discuss their craft.

Bill and Turner Ross, a relatively younger pair of sibling directors from Ohio, have been praised for their stylized and highly visual approach to documentaries. 

Feinberg said their debut, "45365" (2009), is "one of those films that you see and just know immediately that there is a strong talent at work with an extremely unique and creative vision."

Their newest movie, "Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets," will screen here after its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival. It touches on contemporary American themes through regulars at a bar on the edge of Las Vegas, a metaphor for delusion, failure of promises buoyed by community and friendship, she said.

She said it continues their process of creative experimentation, including a fictional framing device. All five of their features will screen at Big Sky, with the directors on hand to talk about their work.

It's a "unique time" for the other retrospective duo, Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar. Reichert is marking her 50th year as filmmaker. Her 1972 debut, "Growing Up Female," is likely the first movie about the women's movement, Feinberg said.

"It's wonderful to bring someone to Missoula who's had such a deep, rich career," she said.

She and Bognar are both based in Ohio and most of their films are set in the area, "which is really a great example of regional filmmaking and making a career in your hometown" without moving to New York or Los Angeles.

They have a number of Academy Award nominations, including one for their most recent work, "American Factory," about a Chinese owner re-opening a closed General Motors plant in Ohio.

Their subjects range from issues affecting American workers to the the creation of a new opera. The festival will have a "wide and deep spectrum" of their films from shorts to features, including a major work, "A Lion in the House," a four-hour documentary about five families with children in treatment for cancer. (The film will have an intermission.)

Of local note, the "Made in Montana" category features a portrait of "The House that Rob Built," an hourlong feature on former Lady Griz basketball coach Robin Selvig co-directed by Megan Harrington, a former player.


There are some changes to the festival this year. Feinberg, who directed the Ashland International Film Festival in Oregon for 11 years, was hired as guest programmer. She's filling in for programming director Doug Hawes-Davis, who is on sabbatical, and senior programmer Michael Workman, who is studying for an MFA in filmmaking at Stanford.

Regarding locations, movies will screen at The Wilma, the Roxy Theater, the Elks Lodge, and the new Zootown Arts Community Center's Show Room performance space. Late last year, the Big Sky Film Institute moved its headquarters to the ZACC, and the festival will have more events there accordingly.

While the number of submissions has grown, Gregg said Big Sky is at the size and feel that they want to maintain.

"We really love it to be a celebration of downtown," she said. There's only a certain amount of venues available for screenings, and even though it has international draw and recognition, as a nonprofit it's community supported. If they tried to grow to a larger conference-style event they would lose a feeling that it's "intimate and accessible" and filmmakers have the opportunity to engage with the public.

For industry interactions, filmmakers can go to the five-day Big Sky DocShop forum of panels and workshops. The theme this year is "Sustainability and Integrity," focused on developing and maintaining a career. The Tribeca Film Institute will be on hand for If/Then Shorts Pitch for the American West. The winning project will receive $25,000 and distribution through the institute and ESPN.

This year, the Native Filmmaker Initiative enters its third full year. The festival focused on ensuring that the Indigenous films it hosts are directed by Indigenous filmmakers, Gregg said, and the Initiative brings eight fellows for the 4th World Indigenous Media Lab. The directors come to Big Sky and then head to Seattle International Film Festival and Camden International Film Festival as part of a year of career development through a formal partnership with those organizations and others.

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