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Cowboys have long been an iconic symbol of the American West, where ranching country consists of vast, open prairies. However, this image excludes the lesser-known population of inner-city cowboys who roam the streets on horseback alongside cars and pedestrians.

Willard Alternative High School students had the opportunity to learn about the lifestyle of urban cowboys during a special screening of “Fire on the Hill: The Cowboys of South Central L.A.” in the school's new library on Thursday.

“Montana is a cowboy kind of state so it's kind of cool to see that it's in different places, too, not just here,” said Claudia Morrison, a 12th-grader at Willard.

The screening was part of the Big Sky Film Festival’s “Filmmakers in the Schools” program that gives students all over western Montana the opportunity to engage with festival artists.

The program aims to expand students’ world views by exposing them to cultures and issues that they don’t normally see. At school screenings, students are able to ask questions, voice their opinions and dive deeper into the content of each film.

Morrison said the film, which follows the lives and struggles of inner-city cowboys in South Central Los Angeles following a fire at a public stable, led her to consider the differences and similarities between Montana and California cowboys.

The film’s director, Brett Fallentine, said he wanted the film to encourage people to rethink their perceptions by showing a different side of South Central L.A., which is often known for gangs, drugs and crime.

“One of the main takeaways that I hope people get from this is that their perception of places like South Central L.A., Compton can change and it's not always violence, games, drugs, crime,” Fallentine said. “There are other facets of it and there are people that are doing other things that are really positive.”

William Bias, one of the cowboys in the film who visited Willard, said that he hopes kids who see the film realize that they can choose any path in life, imparting the message on Willard students that being a cowboy is cool.

"Anything is possible because even for us, we never knew that this movie would have us in Missoula, Montana,” Bias said.

Bias said the film also contains valuable life lessons about discrimination, separation, community and stereotypes.

Willard students asked the cowboys in the film — Bias, Calvin Gray, Ghuan Featherstone and Chris Byrd — questions about horses, discrimination and rodeos and related their own experiences.

Whitley Odyk, a junior at Willard and bronco rider, contrasted the gender discrimination she has faced with the racial discrimination the cowboys in the film have faced.

The Filmmakers in the Schools program is one way the Big Sky Film Festival capitalizes on the use of documentaries as an educational tool. The festival also runs the Native Filmmaker Initiative to incorporate more Indigenous stories in documentary filmmaking, the Teen Doc Intensive where students across the state create a documentary in just two days, and the five-month Big Sky Documentary Youth Fellowship program that mentors students through the process of making a short documentary.

Julia Sherman, the festival’s education coordinator, said the festival worked with more students this year than ever before.

Sherman partners with schools throughout the year to teach students vocabulary to talk about films so they can be active viewers who analyze and critique each movie. Silverman said knowing basic vocabulary words such as theme and exposition helps students dive deeper into the films’ content when it comes time for discussion.

”We’re really focused on community and our youth and taking advantage of the educational component of documentary film,” Sherman said. “It's so rewarding to see these kids engage with these stories from around the world in a place as small and insular as Missoula, Montana.”

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