The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival rolled out its 2021 lineup Friday, with 27 features and 50 short films that will screen virtually Feb. 19-28.
The switch to online hasn’t changed the content at the 18th annual event, where viewers can see stories about activism, social justice, the environment and individual portraits, along with a handful of movies that address the pandemic.
“There’s so many stories of resilience,” said Rachel Gregg, the executive director of the festival. "It’s a reminder that there are a lot of things that people struggle against."
While the last year has been dominated by “our collective experience,” the festival’s program “helps you think about other perspectives, other challenges, other ways of going through the world,” she said. The films, picked by a team of programmers, feel prescient regarding their themes, and have such a high number of portrait films focused on a particular individual that there’s an entirely new strand for the category.
They’re “exciting stories that remove you a little bit” from the collective shock of the pandemic, Gregg said.
A few examples include “Driven,” which details a quadriplegic man’s efforts to continue driving race cars; and “The Falconer,” a portrait of one of the few Black falconers in the U.S., who emerged from a difficult youth into the sport and is now pushing to create a bird sanctuary near Washington, D.C. “Havana Libre,” is a “beautiful and exciting film” about surfers’ efforts to legitimize their sport in Cuba, she said.
The festival has developed a relationship with Iranian filmmakers, leading to submissions of films like “Holy Bread,” which centers on the lives of lower-class Kurds who deliver goods across the Iranian border, and “A Horse Has More Blood Than A Human,” on the theme of aging.
“Youth V. Gov” documents a lawsuit filed by young people against the U.S. government over its "willful actions" in creating climate change. It was directed by Christi Cooper, an alum of the filmmaking MFA program at Montana State University. (There’s a whole category of short films spotlighting student work from MSU again this year to mark the program's 20th anniversary.)
A strand of Indigenous films from around the world covers subjects as diverse as traditional Seminole alligator wrestling in Florida (“Halpate”) and the intersection of injustice, colonialism and water use at a former WWII interment camp for Japanese-Americans in California (“Manzanar, Diverted”).
The pandemic often emerges as more of an end note in films that were partially completed before it struck. The call for entries, which drew about 1,800 submissions from 86 countries, closed in mid-October.
“The films we’re seeing right now reflect that transition time,” she said.
A few short films are more direct and show a range of experiences, she said. One movie, “57 Days,” is centered on the first COVID patient admitted to an intensive care unit in Spain. Another, “14,” documents the initial two weeks of lockdown in the United Kingdom from the vantage point of the director’s apartment windows. A Missoula-made film by Kelly Bouma, “Life in the Slow Lane,” about a local senior making social connections through bowling, was filmed partly during the pandemic.
After months of scrolling through streaming services, the festival is a chance to check out a tightly curated selection of films. That is, after all, “what festivals are for,” Gregg said.
They’ve been encouraging people to “take a pause” on some subscriptions and “go for Big Sky that last week of February.”
Moving virtually required changes made after consulting with other festivals organizers locally and nationally about the transition from live screenings packed with guest filmmakers and panels to online-only events.
The shorts will be available on demand for the full duration of the festival with a spotlighted movie every day. The features will be available during a window of three to four days to add an event-like incentive to their roll-out, with new premieres daily.
Organizers also decided to limit the number of films to make the choices easier for the audience members. “We know that during the live event, when we have 150 to 200 films, it’s already challenging to choose between those in the limited window of disposable hours you have in a day to make it to a screening,” she said. Now that people’s schedules are more complicated and they’re spending so much time online, the tighter program is designed to both be digestible and get a healthy turnout for the films.
It also places more emphasis on “those filmmakers who were brave and enthusiastic enough to take part in a virtual festival, especially those premiering,” she said.
The interest from filmmakers in participating virtually was high. “We’ve noticed a lot of films that are really timely and need to come out into the world,” she said. For instance,“Say His Name: Five Days for George Floyd,” was filmed in the aftermath of Floyd’s killing by police officers in director Cy Dodson’s neighborhood in Minneapolis.
They’re lining up live Q&As every day, with an emphasis on premieres and competition films that might leave “burning questions,” Gregg said. (Those will be recorded if you watch a later screening.)
The DocShop conference will take place virtually Feb. 22-26 as well to help connect filmmakers and industry folks. The themes include “power, ethics and agency” and the challenges of working during COVID. The Big Sky Pitch, where 10 projects will vie for funding, will also happen virtually.
There’s also the potential for viewers who’ve moved away from Montana or filmmaking alums to tune in, which wasn’t an option in the past. That may boost attendance.
Getting signed up
The festival partnered with Eventive, an online ticketing platform, that won’t be too different from getting set up with a new streaming service or app, Gregg said.
Festival passes are on sale now. Individual passes will go on sale Feb. 2, when the “virtual cinema” will open, and you start reserving a schedule of movies you want to see. There will be a step-by-step how-to guide posted there if you have any technical questions about how to get signed up and stream. Head to bigskyfilmfest.org for more information.