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Big Sky Documentary Film Festival Stakes Its Claim on the Regional Circuit

By Coley Gray

A white woman with dark hair crouched over holding up a polaroid of a man and a woman. From Nira Burstein's 'Charm Circle'. Courtesy of Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

Missoula, Montana is a lively university town, beautifully situated at the confluence of several mountain valleys. But let’s be honest, visiting windswept Big Sky country (as the state likes to call itself) in the dead of winter isn’t on too many top-ten travel lists. 

Except perhaps documentary film aficionados, who are drawn like frozen-toed snowshoers to the toasty cinematic campfire of the town’s annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and DocShop Filmmaker’s Forum. Held every February, Big Sky is a standout example of a regional film festival, showcasing adventurous programming grounded in warm local hospitality. This year’s 10-day program screened in-person at three venues in Missoula and offered extensive options for virtual viewing.

While a small set of high-profile film festivals often dominate the general media’s coverage, regional film festivals are the backbone of the US independent and documentary film industry. These festivals provide first, crucial opportunities for filmmakers to get their films in front of audiences and industry folk. Festivals are, according to filmmakers surveyed in CMSI’s State of the U.S. Documentary Field 2021, the leading source of film distribution for their most recent film. Just as important, these events develop and cultivate audiences in these smaller markets with movie fare they might never have access to otherwise.

What Makes Big Sky Special?

Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, now in its 19th year, takes both of these responsibilities seriously. On the programming side, over 90% of the films shown were selected through its open-call process. There were some clear themes—Indigenous stories, the consequences of economic inequality, coping with substance abuse. Healing through art was another, Big Sky Film Institute (BSFI) Executive Director Rachel Gregg points out. 

But, she adds, many submissions reflected simply a “cacophony” of responses to major social and personal inflection points experienced during COVID that are just now finding outlets for sharing. The open-call ethos tilts the programming towards taking the pulse of what’s coming in, rather than prescriptive curation. It also allows for the appearance in the program of, say, the revelatory Ranger, by Austin J. Peck. The film, which documents the self-empowerment journey of a cohort of newly recruited female wildlife rangers in Kenya, arrived with little hype but packed a big emotional punch.

As an Oscar-qualifying event for short documentaries, Big Sky works hard not to short-change this form. Short docs are integrated in the film guide on equal footing with features— they are scheduled every day and often during prime times, not just early-morning slots. Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck and Robert Machoian’s Last Days of August, which world-premiered in Missoula, was a gem of a portrait of a dying town in Nebraska that deftly combines vérité with staged scenes, topped off with a dash of mordant humor. 

"Discussions were wide-ranging and frank—part intellectual debate, part practical advice-giving, and part group therapy."

- Coley Gray

The festival affords several opportunities to creatively engage the community. The “Filmmakers in the School” initiative capitalizes on the presence of creators in town for their festival screening to share their documentary storytelling skills and film journeys with students and aspiring filmmakers in Montana classrooms. Several of the selected films also offered stories of direct relevance to Montanans but were enough off-the-beaten track to provide fresh takes on their own backyard. For instance, Up on the Mountain, from Olivier Matthon and Michael Reis, follows the travails of mushroom pickers (many of whom are immigrants, while others are choosing to live a life slightly off the grid) on public lands in the West. The film posed some pointed questions about the actions and motives of the US Forest Service’s seemingly inconsistent oversight of this activity in the state’s parks. 

Finally, concurrent with the nearly 150 films screened and educational outreach, Big Sky hosts an ambitious filmmaker’s forum called DocShop.  

DocShop Filmmaker’s Forum 2022: Art & Activism

DocShop has been a staple of Big Sky for more than a decade. This year it consisted of a four-day set of panels and workshops with the theme “Art & Activism.” Programmed by Alana Waksman, DocShop 2022 was intended “to understand the forces at play as documentary film[making] is increasingly pursued as a tool for social movement, its shifting influence in the public sphere, and implications for the future of the documentary form.”

According to Waksman and Gregg, one catalyst for this year’s theme were the findings from CMSI industry-wide reports that the leading motivation for US documentary professionals is the desire to make a positive impact on social issues, and that almost two-thirds of filmmakers self-identify as a “social issue advocate filmmaker.”

Thanks to a local foundation’s support, DocShop was free and open to the public and drew both festival participants and local community members at every session. Stimulated by the Art & Activism theme and the diverse lived experiences in the room, discussions were wide-ranging and frank—part intellectual debate, part practical advice-giving, and part group therapy.  To this observer, in the forum’s attempt to unpack this endlessly fascinating relationship between these two concepts, at least two throughlines stood out. 

"How do we create an atmosphere in the documentary industry that is open to all of those forms of expression that we know are important?"

- Rachel Gregg, Executive Director, Big Sky Film Institute (BSFI) 

The Many Facets of Impact

Those seeking simple, one-dimensional answers to the questions about the impacts of documentary film would have found themselves tumbling through the looking glass on the fourth floor of the Missoula Public Library at this year’s DocShop. 

In opening the forum’s first session, “Docs for a Cause: Defining Impact,” Gregg set the intention for the week as opening up rather than narrowing the aperture for understanding impact. She challenged the audience “How do we create an atmosphere in the documentary industry that is open to all of those forms of expression that we know are important—whether for the makers who have an experience while they're telling a story and that impact is important, or whether it reaches an audience and policy is changed or a community is changed or [just] a person?” 

This session assembled a powerful line-up to speak to this intention: Director Jamie Boyle, whose Anonymous Sister is a first-hand chronicle of her family's fall into opioid addiction; Sara Terry, director of A Decent Home, Big Sky’s opening-night film that looks at class and economic mobility issues in contemporary American society, as played out through the lives of mobile home park residents; and Brooke Pepion Swaney and Colleen Thurston, director and impact producer, respectively, of Daughter of a Lost Bird, which follows Kendra, a Native woman adopted by a white family as she reconnects with her Native identity. 

Each filmmaker had personal connections with the subject matter that played out in different ways, story-wise and stylistically. Each film had elements of standard outreach and impact campaigns comprising partnerships with stakeholders, potential policy and practice objectives, and aspirations to move the needle for at least some viewers, from knowledge to action. The panelists shared many pragmatic suggestions about audience survey techniques, grant application tips and tricks, and creative adaptations in their campaign implementation along the way. Boyle mentioned that her team began handing out Narcan (an overdose-reversal medication that can be administered to prevent deaths) to screening attendees, at the advice of community partners.

Moreover, the panelists illustrated how these impacts layered on each other at the same time and pulled out examples of even more nuanced impacts. Swaney and Thurston highlighted those affecting their film’s main protagonist. Prior to the filmmaking, “Kendra did not realize that she was part of a deliberate process by the United States government to erase Indigenous people from this land,” Thurston said. “It wasn't until Kendra reconnected [through the filming] that she began to understand these traumatic events in histories,” and that the viewer could also travel that same journey with her in the film.

“What do we lose when we ask for stories to have a return on investment? Can't we just make art for the sake of art?”

- Michael Workman, Director of Features Programming at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

Boyle described how her film’s production team was affected by Anonymous Sister, which in turn strengthened its impact campaign. The film pretty clearly lands on the side that long-term opioid use for chronic pain is not safe or effective. However, some of her team’s relatives are on long-term opioids for various issues. Working through the disparities with the team through “a lot of conversations and digging deep” allowed them to reach an authentic place “where we feel like we can really meet people where they're at and help them wherever they are . . . [and] ended up actually being really huge, huge benefits to our outreach work.”

For Terry, her very first goal for A Decent Home was to break stereotypes. “The term ‘trailer trash’ is one of the last phrases you can use in our cultural dialogue where nobody calls you out,” she shared. And yet, she noted, those words are “so demeaning, and they're so othering, they're so objectifying” that if by watching the film, it can have that internal impact of changing viewers’ hearts, that is the on-ramp to changing minds.

It was perhaps fitting then that Big Sky’s shorts competition film winner explicitly addressed the issue of an artist navigating an art market that craves his creative works but not the message that comes with them. In Titus Kaphar and Alex Mallis’ Shut Up and Paint, we see painter and MacArthur “Genius” grantee Kaphar wrestling with this paradox between his intentions—“I'm making paintings about white supremacy”—and the reception among many art collectors—“Institutions that facilitate white supremacy are saying if you just didn't talk so loud about that, and not say the things that it's actually about, not say the things that actually motivate you to make what you make, then we would accept what you do.” 

At the same time, Kaphar is in a double-bind, like many socially-minded artists, in also wanting the impact of his work to be judged on the merits of its artistry. “You feel that some curators are distracted or even disturbed by the conversation around the content of the work,” we overhear him saying to one gallerist, “and therefore they're unable to see the form in the work.” 

Activism for Art

Picking up on that thread, in a clever bit of counter-programming, given the prior DocShop sessions’ emphasis on impact, the panel provocatively titled, “Damn the Man: For the Love of Art” and moderated by Big Sky’s Director of Features Programming, Michael Workman, queried, “What do we lose when we ask for stories to have a return on investment? Can't we just make art for the sake of art?”

Where do documentary films that don’t have an obvious social-change impact fit in this landscape that can feel increasingly slanted towards metrics and issue-relevance? Are such films potentially a casualty of these expectations, on the one side, of documentary funders’ push for measurable impact? And, on the other side, are these films at risk of not finding an appreciative audience as entertainment because streaming platforms, while increasingly popularizing the documentary form, are shaping tastes primarily for familiar formulas and for certain genres like true crime? 

As Gregg explains, one of the roles her teams see for the festival is to champion films with more diverse aesthetics and storytelling approaches and in doing so, engage in a form of audience education through exposing viewers to these films in the festival’s program. As Workman elaborated in the panel, “We're interested in talking about and examining the ways in which we can expand the nonfiction form and specifically expand the notion of the art of nonfiction storytelling in the United States context.” 

Nira Burstein, director of Charm Circle, a vérité portrait of her own eccentric—and loving—nuclear family that debuted at Sheffield DocFest last year, compared her film to a “musical comedy.” Why is it, she asked, that documentary films can’t be held to the same standard as fiction films of simply being very, very entertaining? As for defining impact, she had a different take: “The biggest compliment I ever get is, I want to show this to my grandma. I love when people say they want to share a movie with someone they know like that. That is a meaningful thing.”

Bhawin Suchak, director and producer of Outta the Muck, which premiered at Big Sky, noted that practical strategies to lowering costs of production can also encourage artistic experimentation. He advises the young people he works with at the nonprofit Youth FX, where he serves as executive director, to look at “what are the stories right around you, in your community, because I think that also reduces the amount of need for certain resources.” He continued, “If we have access to equipment, and the tools and be able to go edit somewhere,without the pressures of having to produce something, and you get to have a space to experiment a little bit, that can really advance the growth artistically of anybody.”

“We're interested in talking about and examining the ways in which we can expand the nonfiction form and specifically expand the notion of the art of nonfiction storytelling in the United States context.” 

- Michael Workman, Director of Features Programming at Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

One Road to Quartzsite, represented on the panel by director Ryan Maxey, is a case study in scrappy filmmaking that drew creative inspiration from Maxey’s immediate surroundings. With a simple DSLR camera and a car to live out of, Maxey said the film cost a lot of time over several years but almost no money. The resulting film doesn’t follow a traditional story arc, as it pays quiet homage to all sorts who have followed disparate paths to end up in the same place in the Arizona desert. 

As Maxey recounted, the chance to show the film in Quartzite recently had one of the most profound impacts. “I set up in front of my bus a big screen and we made some campfires outside and 100 people came,” he said. “We got this tiny carpet and spray-painted it red, and everyone had their red-carpet moment. . .  It was one of the most meaningful nights of my life, and people liked it.”

Whether to prove the session’s point or simply because they met the standard of being very, very entertaining, the festival’s feature competition winner, One Road to Quartzsite, and its feature artistic vision awardee, Paweł Łoziński’s The Balcony Movie, perfectly reflected this kind of convention-busting authorship and inventiveness in aesthetics. 

The two films could not have been more formally different. The Balcony Movie offered a fixed view of passersby from an apartment balcony in Warsaw, while One Road to Quartzsite roamed through the homes and hangouts of residents in the quirky town. Both, though, were masterclasses in editing and showed a deft touch, using interactions with a cross-section of fellow citizens to elicit moments of emotional honesty. Both also had the virtue of being laugh-out-loud funny, a rare trait in documentaries, and one too often left off the list of impact metrics. 

On my final night in town, I sat at the bar of a high-end steak joint (naturally, when in Missoula...) and made conversation with my neighbors. One of them, who worked at a prominent local sponsor of the festival whose logo could be seen on all the screening bumpers, said he was glad the festival brought people and films from around the world to town. But mostly he was proud that the Big Sky Film Festival was an example of “locals supporting locals.” I couldn’t have said it better. 

Coley Gray is a graduate student in arts management at American University, where her studies focus on the intersection of documentary film and social impact.