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A Trove of Docs in the Treasure State: Big Sky Fest Draws Droves to Montana

By Michael Galinsky

In Missoula, Montana, a town surrounded by mountains, people line up around the block, in freezing weather, to watch films by local favorites, as well as overlooked gems. In its 12th year, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, which was started by local filmmakers, focuses not only on finding great films, but also on making sure that the filmmakers get as much out of the experience as possible.

While the festival, which ran February 15-23, isn't premiere-centric, I did catch two debuts that really stood out. While it first played for enthusiastic audiences at IDFA last November, Big Sky was the first US festival to screen Usama Alshaibi's American Arab. Alshaibi has deep roots in the underground, having made narrative and documentary films that push both thematic and stylistic boundaries. His 2007 film Nice Bombs documents his trip back to Baghdad to see his father shortly after the Iraq War broke out. American Arab picks up this thread of personal narrative and explores what it means to be an Arab-American, post-9/11. Further, in the great tradition of American personal documentary film, Alshabi also struggles with what it means to be a filmmaker who happens to be Arab-American. Less concerned with aesthetics than ideas, he uses the camera as a tool to dig for answers about identity, art and filmmaking that are often overlooked. 


A man standing on a bridge with his hands held up in the air in front of his face
From Usama Alshaibi's American Arab


The line for Freeload, a Missoula-produced documentary about young people who ride the rails like modern-day hobos, snaked around the block, and the audience filled every seat in the historic Wilma Theater. Director Daniel Skaggs met fellow filmmakers Ryan Seitz, Mather Mckallor and Neil LaRubbio through the media arts program at Montana State University. In the first three months of this 18-month project, Skaggs would ride the rails while some of the team followed along in a car. They quickly realized this was a problematic venture. Eventually Skaggs would spend months at a time travelling with the riders. He'd send memory cards and hard drives back to the team, and they started to make sense of the hundreds of hours that Skaggs sent back.

The intimacy that's achieved with the young outsider subjects is startling. Reminiscent of Tristan Patterson's Dragonslayer, the film immerses the audience in the world of the train-riders to such a degree that it makes it possible to understand why these "outsiders" feel so pushed to the margins. While Skaggs took a lot of personal risks to gather the footage, it's clear that Freeload is the product of a strong and supportive collective effort.  The crowd clearly appreciated that effort and, like Mike Brodie's documentary book of photos, A Period of Juvenile Prosperity, Freeload will become an important part of this important cultural history.


A black and white image of a closeup of a man's face with his pinky pointing to a tattoo on his temple
From Daniel Skaggs' Freeload

A World Not Ours, which has garnered rave reviews at festivals around the world, was shot over a 20-year period in a Palestinian refugee camp—Ain El-Helweh, in Lebanon. The filmmaker, Mahdi Fleifel, grew up visiting the camp each year, with his father documenting everything on video. He picked up where his father left off and tells a personal and moving story about the rootlessness that comes from permanent displacement. A World Not Ours beat out a strong field to take the Best Feature Award in the main competition. Other winners include Susan Beraza's expertly lensed film Uranium Drive-in, which won the Big Sky Award. "We chose Uranium Drive-in for the Big Sky Award because of its balanced and raw look at the realities of mining," stated the jury. "The filmmakers took great care with the subject and the characters and the result is a powerful story about life in the West." Another strong Big Sky Award contender was Todd Darling's Occupy the Farm. Darling, who tends to focus on environmental issues, followed a powerful group of protesters as they squatted a plot of land owned by University of California, Berkeley, and turned it into a community farm operated under the auspices of the Occupy movement. The most astounding aspect of the film is that it captured a powerful victory for people's movements. Brian McGinn's The Record Breaker, which profiles Ashrita Furman, the man with the most Guinness World Records of all time, took the Best Short Award.


A group of men, some in camo fatigues, and a child in fatigues
From Mahdi Fleifel's A World Not Ours

In addition to premieres and Western-themed films, Big Sky also delivered festival hits like Kevin Schreck's Persistence of Vision, which examines the tale of The Thief and the Cobbler, animation artist Richard Williams' never-completed epic masterpiece. While Williams refused to talk about the film, Schreck was able to cobble together a wide array of interviews and archival footage, which gives the film a life it never had.

Big Sky co-founder Doug Hawes-Davis is a big music fan, so it's no surprise that music films and events squeeze their way into the festival. One of the main attractions was a screening of Gorman Bechard's Every Everything, a cinematic portrait of Hüsker Dü's Grant Hart. The real treat was that Big Sky, at great expense, brought in Hart to play after the film. He delivered the hits.

Big Sky has also started to screen a number of films from past editions as encores. My production team and I were lucky enough to re-screen our film Horns and Halos. It's always nice to revisit docs 10 years later, and the encores tend to bring in good crowds, so the programmers will continue to show them. The full list of films can be found on the Big Sky website, and many of them have trailers. Big Sky continues to grow in terms of programming and audience support, and they keep the focus on the filmmakers, which is always a good sign.

Michael Galinsky is partners with Suki Hawley and David Bellinson in the award-winning production studio Rumur. Their film Who Took Johnny premiered at Slamdance. They are currently working on a film about the connection between stress and pain.