'Newtok'

In "Newtok," a Yup'ik community in Alaska  fights to keep their community intact in the face of climate change.

The competition winners at the 19th Big Sky Documentary Film Festival were announced on Friday.

The stories range from perspectives on the overlap between art and activism to Indigenous communities’ work under the threat of climate change in Alaska and starting bike trails in Arizona. A filmmaker, who, before the pandemic, shot an entire movie by interacting with strangers from his balcony.

A total of 44 movies were in the competition, with 26 world premieres and 12 North American premieres.

It was highly competitive this year, said Rachel Gregg, executive director of the nonprofit Big Sky Film Institute. Many filmmakers kept projects “tucked away” until they could premiere them for live audiences. “The quality of the competition films was really high,” she said, and made things difficult for the jury.

The festival has four competitions — Feature, Big Sky Award, Short (under 40 minutes) and Mini-Doc (under 15 minutes). The Big Sky Award goes to a film that “artistically honors the character, history, tradition and imagination of the American West.”

The winners of the Short and Mini-Doc Awards are automatically qualified for consideration for an Academy Award in the “Documentary Short Subject” category the following year.

The award-winning movies will screen again at the Roxy Theater on Sunday, Feb. 27, at 5:45 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Go to bigskyfilmfest.org for more information or to purchase advance tickets.

As a whole, the festival continues in person through Sunday, Feb. 27, at the Wilma, the Roxy Theater, the Zootown Arts Community Center and Missoula Children's Theatre. Online, you can watch films through Thursday, March 3.

This is the festival’s first hybrid event, with 150 movies total and more than 200 representatives of movies in town. Many movies have brought out “entire teams,” a sign of how they’re “just so eager to be with in-person audiences.”

The virtual festival had high engagement, too, from inside and outside Missoula. While the in-person venues have had limited capacity due to COVID, the attendance overall has been such that they met their revenue goal by Monday.

As they did last year, 15% of the virtual sales will go toward a filmmaker support fund that’s divided among the filmmakers.

The juries, which are different for every category, include industry professionals from Vice Studios, New York Times Op-Docs, the D.C. Black Film Festival, the Montana Film Commission, independent filmmakers and more.

Mini-Doc competition

(15 minutes and under)

“Nice to Meet You All” (2021, UK, 12 min.)

Director: Guen Murroni

Synopsis: “A celebration of a woman with dissociative identity disorder who has survived human trafficking rings in the U.S.”

Short competition

(15-40 minutes in length)

“Shut Up and Paint” (2022, USA, 20 min.)

Directors: Titus Kaphar, Alex Mallis

Synopsis: “Painter Titus Kaphar looks to film as a medium in the face of an insatiable art market seeking to silence his activism.”

Short Artistic Vision Award

“Herd” (2021, Israel, 37 min.)

Director: Omer Daida

Synopsis: “Itamar, Naama’s father, owns a ranch that raises cattle for slaughter. Ten-year-old Naama deals with a big philosophical question regarding life and death while working with her father. Together they attempt to bridge their worldview regarding death. While Naama develops feelings for the cattle, Itamar sees death as an inevitable part of life.”

The jury called it a “beautifully composed coming of age meditation on tradition, family ties and our complicated relationship with the animals that we rely on for both companionship and sustenance” and praised its cinematography and sound design.

Big Sky Award

“Newtok” (2021, USA, 97 min.)

Directors: Andrew Burton, Michael Kirby Smith

Synopsis: “As the permafrost rapidly melts, the Indigenous village of Newtok, Alaska, is quickly eroding into the ocean. After decades of government abuse and inaction, the Yup’ik people fight to keep their community intact. Villagers are forced to decide between abandoning their traditional lands or relocating their community.”

Big Sky Artistic Vision Award

“The Trails Before Us” (2021, USA, 13 min.)

Director: Fritz Bitsoie

Synopsis: “‘The Trails Before Us’ follows 17-year-old Nigel James, a Diné mountain biker, as he hosts the first Enduro race in the Navajo Nation. Through revitalizing old sheep and livestock trails on his grandparents’ land, Nigel and a new generation of riders honor the connection to their land, community and culture.”

The jury cited “its reclamation of classic Western tropes and modernizing it for Indigenous communities today. We especially love the film for its focus on Indigenous achievement and the way the story's perspective is told from within the community.”

Feature competition

“One Road to Quartzite” (2022, USA, 89 min.)

Director: Ryan Maxey

Synopsis: “A ragtag group of crust punks, libertarians, snowbirds, and elderly folks become unlikely neighbors during their annual pilgrimage to a temporary long-term camping community in Quartzsite, Arizona.”

Feature Artistic Vision Award

“The Balcony Movie” (2021, Poland, 100 min.)

Director: Paweł Łoziński

Synopsis: “A unique and endearing film that challenges our collective anxiety toward public connection with strangers. The film consists entirely of conversations that the director holds with people in the street under his Warsaw apartment; his balcony turns into an outlet for passersby to voice their desires, fears, frustrations, regrets or banal observations.”

The jury cited the film as “unique and innovative, with artistic allusions to French New Wave cinema updated for the modern day. The stylistic approach was executed with dedication by the filmmakers. It was excellently shot and edited, which highlighted the simple yet profound premise at the heart of the film, while also making it funny and entertaining to watch.”