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'Renga for the West'

In the documentary "Renga for the West," refugees in Missoula share their stories.

The 15th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival announced its slate of about 170 films on Thursday.

The festival, held in Missoula on Feb. 16-25, will be eclectic as ever. Attendees can expect a strong showing of movies related to activism and social justice.

Festival director Rachel Gregg said they are "politically charged, but not in the the traditional sense," covering "how people are capturing momentum" and responding to political events in the U.S. and abroad. She said they provide "beautiful context and perspective for the kind of agency that comes out of difficult sociopolitical times."

Some are close to home. In "Dark Money," Helena native Kimberly Reed examines the effects of the Citizens United ruling on Montana's elections. Her film will premiere at Sundance before coming to Missoula. While filming a documentary on the tar sands, "The Reluctant Radical," in Washington, director Lindsey Grayzel was arrested.

This year's nationally known directors for retrospective showcases are Kirby Dick and Greg Barker. Dick's films include "The Hunting Ground," a 2015 exploration of the nationwide epidemic of campus sexual assault. Barker has a new film, "The Final Year," on the Obama administration's foreign policy efforts in 2016. His other films have explored counterterrorism and the search for Osama bin Laden.

The jury of 16 filmmakers and industry professionals combed through about 2,000 national and international documentaries of all lengths that were submitted to the open call this year. The percentage of those films with merit has increased, said Doug Hawes-Davis, the director of programming and the festival founder. He said one juror told him "there were hardly any that didn't require serious thought as to whether they could be in the festival."

Senior programmer Michael Workman said the jury examines each film's balance of craft, storytelling and ideas. They often reject films that cover important issues if the artistic quality isn't high enough, Hawes-Davis said.

The subject matter, meanwhile, is wide open, covering politics, music, art, the environment, sports, outdoors adventures and more. The selections are divided into "strands" to help viewers home in on general subject areas, such as "Activism and Justice," "Natural Facts," or "Stranger than Fiction," which gathers quirkier stories or character studies, or "Sights and Sounds," which compiles arts-related movies.

The festival has a new Native Filmmaker Initiative, which brought screenings of indigenous films to schools across Montana with "virtual" visits from filmmakers. Gregg said they've been more intentional about the programming of Native films and made a specific open call for work by indigenous filmmakers regardless of subject matter.

Outside of the traditional documentary format, the New York Times is sending four virtual-reality documentaries about Antarctica.

This year, the festival received a $20,000 matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts for the five-day DocShop, its forum for industry professionals. This year, the focus is on the "intersection of film and technology," Gregg said. They'll look at emerging mediums such as virtual-reality, streaming, audio documentaries and more that find new ways to tell stories and reach audiences, she said. The grant has increased the number of people attending the DocShop. This year, professionals from Vimeo, the Sundance Institute New Frontier, Seed & Spark, Fandor and more will attend.

The Tribeca Film Institute is returning with its If/Then Pitch, a chance for filmmakers to make proposals for stories about the American West. The winner is eligible for up to $20,000. The recipients of last year's funding will screen "Renga for the West," in which refugees in Missoula filmed stories about their experiences.

Last year, the festival had attendance of about 20,000 including an estimated 200 filmmakers.

To view the official selections, go to bigskyfilmfest.org.

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