With more than 200 films culled from a long list of upward of 1,600 submissions, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival boasts too many movies to settle into a single theme.
However, a trend did emerge for the 14th annual installment, opening Friday and running through Sunday, Feb. 26, in downtown Missoula.
The line-up is "the most culturally relevant we've had," said Michael Workman, the festival coordinator and associate programmer. It boasts the most issue-based films and the fewest pop-culture and music entries yet, he said.
The line-up was selected from 1,600 films, the largest pool they've ever had. Any trends that emerge on the schedule do so organically, he said. Regarding the prevalence of issue films, he said "it's just what people have been making right now."
In "The Father, the Son and the Holy Jihad," French filmmaker Stephane Malterre introduces a Syrian man who emigrated to France in the 1960s. He and his French-born son eventually return to Syria to fight Bashar Assad and ISIS, with plenty of embedded footage, a ground-level "look at how people get radicalized," Workman said.
Many of the films are premieres, either for Montana, the U.S. or the world, with plenty for any taste, though, whether it's the story of a 9-year-old female power-lifter ("Supergirl"), an influential art musician ("Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present"), or a portrait of Blackfeet activist Elouise Cobell's battle against the festival government ("100 Years.")
Retrospective: Daniel Junge
A special feature of the festival are the retrospectives, in which the festival gives viewers a deep dive into the work of established filmmakers, often at the peaks of their careers.
Organizers selected Colorado-based director Daniel Junge for the incredible "breadth of subject matter" in his films, Workman said. His resume, 10 features deep before age 50, includes subjects as divergent as the Lego phenomenon, mixed-martial arts in churches, or the murder of an American nun in Brazil.
Junge's first feature, 2002's "Chiefs," focuses on basketball players at Wyoming Indian High School. He and co-director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won an Oscar for "Saving Face," a 2011 short documentary about two Pakistani women who were victims of acid attacks.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, two of Junge's recent features delve into pop cultural sensations: For 2014's "Beyond the Brick: A Lego Brickumentary," he and collaborator Kief Davidson traveled around the world to explore the toymaker's fan community, also gaining access to the company's dream factory in Denmark. Of special interest to Montanans is 2015's "Being Evel," a profile of Butte native and world-famous daredevil Evel Knievel. Using what he called a "warts-and-all" approach, Junge tracks Knievel's rise from a rough-and-tumble childhood through his initial days as a stuntman, trying to drum up interest in motorcycles, to his larger late-career stunts, like the infamous attempt to jump the mile-wide Snake River Canyon in Idaho. The film doesn't short-change Knievel's influence on a younger generation of daredevils, from Tony Hawk to Johnny Knoxville, but it doesn't shy away from his often callous treatment of others, from his wife to a promoter who he subjected to a brutal beating.
Workman said it highlights Junge's skill at taking a familiar pop-cultural subject and subverting any expectations or fan-service, although there's plenty of footage of his famed stunts to satisfy fans.
For a full list the Junge's retrospective, go to bigskyfilmfest.org/festival/films-2017-final/category/eyesteelfilm_retrospective/102.
Most of Big Sky's retrospectives focus on the careers of a single filmmaker. So it's understandable the survey of Canada-based collective EyeSteelFilm is the largest the festival has ever undertaken, Workman said.
The group formed around projects covering the homeless community in Montreal. They've since sent directors around the world for their subjects, but retain an issue-based, socially relevant focus.
The retrospective will feature 18 films and bring eight directors to Missoula, including co-founders Daniel Cross and Mila Aung-Thwin.
Workman said the breadth of their projects made it logistically difficult but one of the most relevant retrospectives they've done.
The survey covers 18 films, stretching back to 1990s films on the homeless ("Danny Boy" and "The Street"). As an example of their broad palette, the subjects include "Last Train Home," in which viewers ride along for the largest annual human migration in the world for the Chinese New Year; an undercover Ghanaian journalist who's a cross between a reporter and James Bond ("Chameleon"); or "Taqwacore: The Birth of Punk Islam," which introduces a subculture who's two threads seem irreconcilable.
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Aung-Thwin will be present for the world premiere of his new film, "Let There Be Light," about the international race to produce fusion energy. After playing in Missoula, it will head to Austin for the South by Southwest festival. The collective's members are no strangers to Big Sky. Cross and Aung-Thwin's film "Chairman George," about a statistician who pursues a musical career in China, screened at Big Sky in 2007; and "Chameleon" screened here last year.
For a full list, head to bigskyfilmfest.org/festival/eyesteelfilm_retrospective.
Opening night film
Per tradition, the festival will open on Friday with a free screening held in conjunction with HBO. This year's film, "Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds," focuses on the mother-daughter actresses' relationship and careers.
Directors Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens' film had been scheduled prior to their subjects' deaths, only a day apart, at the end of 2016.
In a review written after their passing, Variety said, "for fans of Fisher and Reynolds, it offers a beautiful kind of closure, feeding our fascination with these late, great, cross-haired showbiz legends and inviting us to revel in the prickly and affectionate, warring and adoring glory of their lives and personalities."
Carrie's brother, Todd Fisher, will be in town to present the film, which screens at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 17, at the Wilma.
Follow the threads
One of the most difficult parts of Big Sky is trying to decide what to see.
It's always a safe bet to see any of the films in the competitions, divided into feature, short and mini categories, plus the Big Sky Award for regional titles. After all, some of the best films will engage you with a subject that you didn't know you'd enjoy.
To find films that match your interests, the organizers divide the entire line-up into topical threads. Head to "Sightseeing & Soundscapes," to scan over movies with arts and culture themes. The "Destination Adventure" thread gathers sports and outdoor explorer films. Head to "Natural Facts" if you're interested in the broader issues on the landscape. "View from the Lookout" and "Peace & Conflict" collect many of the issue-oriented movies.
This year's DocShop, a five-day filmmakers' forum and conference, will feature two pitch sessions.
In addition to the Big Sky Pitch, in which select filmmakers can make their case to producers and funders, they've added their first ever pitch session with Tribeca Film Institute.
The institute, which puts on Tribeca Film Festival, has picked seven filmmakers to make pitches. They either come from the American West themselves or have stories or films based in the West, Workman said. The institute has a pool of $20,000 to draw on depending on the proposals they hear.
Workman said the institute is seeking to help fund documentaries outside of urban (and funding) centers like New York and Los Angeles.
"We just don't get outside funding in Montana unless you're doing very specific projects," he said. The pitch session provides a "documentary filmmakers' dream," he said. "You don't have to make it for an organization or a cause, you can make it for the story and the film, the art of it."
The DocShop requires a fee and registration. For more information, go to bigskyfilmfest.org/docshop. It is free to University of Montana and Montana State University students.