Big Sky Doc Film Fest kicks off 2022

‘Some of the best of the best’

By: - February 18, 2022 6:10 pm

“Daughter of a Lost Bird,” 2022, by Brooke Pepion Swaney. (Provided by the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival for the Daily Montanan.)

The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival kicks off in Missoula this weekend with roughly 150 documentaries on the schedule, 200 filmmakers expected, and a shorts lineup considered its strongest in 19 years.

“We thought that filmmakers might lag this year, especially with the virus coming at us so hard, but gosh, we’re one of the first festivals to forge ahead in person, and I think people were so incredibly excited to participate,” said festival executive director Rachel Gregg on Friday, opening day of the event.

The festival runs in a hybrid format, in person and online, and Gregg said it is considered the largest such festival in the American West in terms of the number of days it takes place and number of films submitted and selected. She said filmmakers turned in an estimated 2,000 documentaries for consideration this year, and the festival will screen 50 world premieres.

The festival, in person from Feb. 18 to 27, is holding in-person screenings to 50 percent capacity, so Gregg said it’s important to plan ahead. People can buy tickets online for their best shot at reserving a seat.

“This is our year to really encourage folks to reserve in advance so they don’t come to the theater and not end up with a seat,” Gregg said.

Fun Fact

For the last six years, Movie Maker Magazine has named the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival as a festival worth the entry fee, said Rachel Gregg, executive director: “This is a festival that really takes care of filmmakers, and it’s worth it for your career.”

However, she also noted that some people still aren’t comfortable gathering in person, and those people can view documentaries virtually, generally Feb. 21 to March 3. Last year, she estimated that 30,000 people put eyes on a documentary during the virtual festival, and the audience represented 35 countries and 49 states.

“We really had a smaller program too last year because we were just learning how to run a festival online,” Gregg said. “And so now this year, we have a much larger program. Almost everything is playing virtually.”

Themes include “Activism and Justice,” “The Art of Aging,” Indigenous Stories,” “Nature and Environment,” and “Made in Montana,” among others. The festival opens with a documentary called “A Decent Home,” directed by Sara Terry and described as bringing “into focus the importance of home and community amidst rapidly changing economic realities.”

“It’s always a challenge every year trying to figure out how to kick things off,” Gregg said. “This one seemed like a good fit.”

She said it’s a relevant subject for Missoula, where the housing problem has repeatedly been described as a crisis. Even modest homes are more and more out of reach for many workers, and a Missoulian story this month noted median family income rose 15 percent since 2010 while median home sales price jumped 109 percent.

“There’s something that happens in our community when we’re able to see these stories and be in a room together,” Gregg said. “The experience is so different than sitting in your living room or looking at your phone. It’s the civic engagement piece that has us really excited.”

The film tells the story of “the wealthiest of the wealthy” buying housing “on the lowest rung of the American Dream,” mobile homes, and Gregg said there’s an interesting dichotomy in thinking that many people have been sitting in their homes for the last couple of years in the pandemic. So bringing the festival back in person was important not only because it’s more fun. 

“It seemed appropriate in that sense to be really intentional about that and engage a conversation that is important for Missoula,” Gregg said.

Go to the Festival

Learn more about how to attend the festival here. Buy tickets and passes here.

The festival format is hybrid, taking place in person from Feb. 18 to 27 in Missoula and online from Feb. 21 to March 3. Most of the films will be available virtually after they show in person.

The festival notes the safest scenario is a festival where “the vast majority of attendees are fully vaccinated.” The festival also requests members of the public, staff and volunteers to wear masks at all events.

Questions? Email [email protected] or call (406) 541-FILM.

Several films have ties to Montana, including “Tracking Notes: The Secret Life of Mountain Lions,” by Colin Ruggiero. Festival media director Nick Davis described Ruggiero, a former collaborator, as “an insanely talented filmmaker,” and he said the work is “gorgeous and stunning,” and it turns at least one traditionally held idea about wild cats on its head.

Animal researchers have believed that outside of mating, breeding, and interacting with kittens, wild cats are almost exclusively antisocial, Davis said. The footage, taken from cameras spread in mountains outside Missoula on a ranch with which Davis also works, shows differently.

“One thing you’re going to see in this film is that we’ve recorded lions from different families sharing a kill, which to our knowledge, has never been documented,” Davis said.

Davis and Gregg also mentioned “Daughter of a Lost Bird,” by Brooke Pepion Swaney, as a documentary among the Montana films. The summary describes a story about a Native woman, Kendra Mylnechuk Potter, adopted into a white family, who “reconnects with her Native identity and begins to view herself as a living legacy of U.S. assimilationist policy.”

The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival lists nine films under “Made in Montana.” Others include “Return to the Big Skies: Miss Montana to Normandy,” by E.W. Ristau, and “Up on the Mountain,” by Olivier Matthon and Michael Reis, about a diverse group in search of rare mushrooms in Idaho and Montana. The latter “exposes the inequities present in U.S. National Forests through the compelling stories of the mostly unseen people harvesting its most elusive crop.”

The festival has grown in its near two decades, with an uptick in submissions spurred in part several years ago after it became an Oscar qualifying festival, Gregg said. She said the winning best short and winning best mini-doc, under 15 minutes, can be nominated for an Oscar, so filmmakers know the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival provides a pathway to that prize.

“It helps us really draw some of the best of the best,” Gregg said.

This year, in particular, one highlight will be the shorts, Davis said: “I was talking to the shorts programmers, and none other than  Doug Hawes-Davis, the founder of the festival, said this is the strongest field of shorts programming that he’s ever seen in 19 years. And he’s seen them all.”

People who aren’t comfortable getting a ticket online can still head to the box office, Davis said. If events are at capacity, and they don’t have a reservation, they won’t be able to attend, but if there’s room, they can get help.

“Our box office staff will be there, and all you need to bring is a valid email address, and they’ll help you set everything up and get you that ticket,” he said.

If a show is full, though, the virtual option works too, Davis said: “The good thing about it is if you don’t’ get into an in person screening, and there isn’t another one that you can go to, you can watch it online in your own home. So you never have to actually miss a film.”

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”