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Big Sky Documentary Film Festival unveils line-up for hybrid screenings

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'Fathom'

Whale researchers Dr. Michelle Fournet and Natalie Mastick Jensen in “Fathom.”

The 19th Big Sky Documentary Film Festival rolled out its lineup on Thursday for Feb. 18-27, with in-person screenings at venues in Missoula, and a virtual festival available to anyone, anywhere Feb. 21-March 3.

A total of 50 nonfiction feature films and 95 shorts from around the world will play.

Executive Director Rachel Gregg listed off highlights such as a high number of movies relevant to Montana and the West, adventurous titles (including Antarctica), a series of Indigenous short films, quirky offerings like “Cat Daddies,” and more.

This far along into the pandemic, Gregg said, “we’re starting to see some passion projects” that filmmakers have saved until the timing was right.

“They're very excited that we're having in-person screenings of their films,” she said, and many plan on visiting.

When deciding to move back into theaters, the organizers talked about “how much is lost when we don’t have that collective experience,” she said. The reactions of others (even under masks), and the sense of civic engagement is much-needed, she added.

After an online-only festival in 2021, movies will screen at the Wilma, the Zootown Arts Community Center Show Room, the Roxy Theater and some at the Missoula Community Theatre Center for the Performing Arts. The DocShop filmmaking conference events will be held at the Missoula Public Library.

The majority of the movies will be available for streaming at home on demand from Feb. 21-March 3 through the Eventive platform. Short films will be up that entire period, while the features will go live the day after their in-person premiere and remain available for four days.

The lineup

There are 50 world premieres and 21 North American premieres. The open call drew more than 2,000 submissions from 84 countries.

Viewers will probably notice many films will feel relevant to Montana and the American West, Gregg said.

Olivier Matthon and Michael Reis’ “Up on the Mountain,” a world premiere, follows mushroom harvesters, including refugees from Southeast Asia, Central and South American immigrants and the rural poor. They travel across the U.S. to gather fungi from public lands to sell to restaurants, leading to conflicts over access.

Tasha Van Zandt’s “After Antarctica,” a Montana premiere, retraces Will Steger’s crossing of the icy continent three decades ago as he prepares to revisit the feat in a changed climate.

Costa Boutsikaris and Anna Palmer’s “Inhabitants,” a Montana premiere, examines Indigenous land stewardship techniques that are being employed again around the U.S. The festival is also showing the Nia Tero Reciprocity Project with short films by Indigenous storytellers.

Sara Terry’s “A Decent Home,” a Northwest premiere, examines the threats on low-income housing that mobile home parks provide when investment and private equity firms buy them.

The schedule is divided into thematic strands on the festival website. Those who need something light or unusual can consult “Stranger Than Fiction.” It features offerings like Mye Hoang’s “Cat Daddies,” a “tender portrait” of eight male cat owners and their relationships with their pets.

Sports fans take note of Ira McKinley and Bhawin Suchak’s “Outta the Muck,” an examination of “family, football and history” to Black families across generations in Florida, according to the film’s website.

Montana movies

In the “Made in Montana” category, there are a number of Missoula-related films.

“Daughter of a Lost Bird,” directed by Brooke Pepion Swaney of Polson, is years in the making. She and co-producer Kendra Mylenchuk Potter relay Potter’s story — a Native woman who was adopted and raised by a white family. In the film, she “reconnects with her birth family, discovers her Lummi heritage, and confronts issues of her own identity,” according to the film’s website. This is the film’s first Montana showing — it premiered at the Maoriland Film Festival last year.

Dillon director Drew Xanthopoulos’ “Fathom” follows two scientists around the world as they study communication between humpback whales. An AppleTV+ film, it screened in Missoula last summer.

E.W. Ristau’s “Return to the Big Skies: Miss Montana to Normandy,” documents the efforts to repair a D-3 smokejumper plane-turned-bomber and fly it to Europe for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, according to the Big Sky website. It’s a “story of community resilience and an interesting homage to the history of the plane itself,” Gregg said.

Those three were all part of the nonprofit festival’s fiscal sponsorship program that provides funding, mentorship and administrative support, Gregg said.

Missoula director Michael Workman’s “Meantime” documents his father’s life after a work-related stroke. It’s “a deeply personal exploration of memory, guilt, labor and the attempt to preserve the fleeting,” according to the festival website.

The DocShop is back, with directors and professionals participating in panels from Feb. 21-25 in the MPL’s fourth floor. Filmmakers will vie for funding through Big Sky Pitch.

In person and online

The schedule will go up on Jan. 24. Passes are on sale now, and individual tickets go on sale Jan. 31. The venue capacity will be limited to 50% to 75%, with potential to open up more depending on the circumstances.

Last year, the virtual festival drew just over 30,000 film viewings from all but one state and 35 countries, Gregg said. The ability to cast a wide net for audiences is “exciting” to continue to offer.

“We’re hearing really positive feedback from our audiences about that option,” she said.

Meanwhile, the holiday sale for passes was “easily triple what it’s been in the past,” an indicator that audiences are eager to return to the theaters, she said. The virtual pass is $100 or $150 for a household.

They’re encouraging people to buy in advance to avoid any rush lines, and must create an account with their contact information in case contact tracing is required. Masks will be required.

More announcements are ahead, including the opening night film, the closing night, and the centerpiece. This year, they opted not to organize any filmmaker retrospectives.

They’ve made a “How to Fest” page and a virtual festival guide with all the information at bigskyfilmfest.org.

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