Engaging films. A strong story. Unforgettable characters. Creative approaches to storytelling.
The pandemic hasn’t changed the qualities of a great movie to Joanne Feinberg, programmer at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, which opens this Friday and continues through Feb. 28.
It has changed the set-up. It’s all virtual. Filmmakers will be doing Q&As, live and pre-taped. Instead of premieres happening at venues around downtown, the virtual schedule has new features going online every day and running for four days. The shorts, meanwhile, will be up the whole time.
With that many movies from so many places, there’s not a “theme” per se, but there are common threads. To find movies that suit your particular interest, head to the categories, where the 75-plus selections are broken out into broad strands, like “The Art of Aging,” “Indigenous Stories,” “Stranger than Fiction,” “Nature and Environment,” and more.
One recurring trait Feinberg has noticed is “the portrayal of very challenging situations we can all relate to in the last year, or four years, but a sense of hope and tenacity in the face of great challenges,” perhaps where individuals “overcome obstacles in many different ways.”
In “Youth v. Gov,” the centerpiece film screening (Feb. 24-27), young people sue the federal government for its actions in causing climate change. In “Havana Libre,” the opening night movie (Feb. 19-22), Cubans develop the sport of surfing in their country despite government opposition. In “Manzanar, Diverted,” the closing weekend centerpiece, environmentalists and activists fight for water rights. (Feb. 26-28).
There are plenty of “beautiful, arty” films, too. “My Darling Supermarket” (Feb. 20-23) follows the employees at a supermarket in Brazil, “who are all extremely philosophical about life,” she said, with entertaining and profound observations. “Late So Soon” (Feb. 25-28) is a portrait of Chicago artists Jackie and Don Seiden, who’ve been married for 50 years.
The feature-length movies are premiering every day, with runs of four days only, to keep a similar feel to the in-person events.
The short films are available from Feb. 20-28, divided into blocks. There’s an entire one dedicated to Montana movies, and it spans themes and tones, as well. “The Orange Candidate” revisits an unusual election campaign in Chester involving a certain snack food mascot. “Life in the Slow Lane” is a portrait film about a Missoula senior who finds community in league bowling. (It won the F/Then Shorts American West Pitch from Tribeca Film Institute at Big Sky last year.)
The submissions are vetted by a team of programmers. Feinberg oversaw the feature-lengths, and Doug Hawes-Davis handled the shorts.
She’s “still looking for engaging films that tell a really strong story with characters that are unforgettable.” Movies that elicit a strong emotional response, for instance. Technical confidence. Questions about whether everything is serving the story, who’s telling the story, and whether film is the best medium to convey that. Discovering new voices is key, too.
Then there are directors who find unique ways of approaching a subject.
“Sometimes the best way of telling a story might be a very traditional format, but it’s always exciting to see filmmakers trying new things,” she said.
Some new hybrid styles include “Cops and Robbers Story” (Feb. 20-23), which employs dramatic re-enactments in relaying the life of a veteran New York City police officer who had shed his past as a gang member.
“A Reckoning in Boston” (Feb. 21-24) experiments with the medium in a socially relevant fashion. The director, James Rutenback, began following two people taking a night course in Boston. Over the course of the movies, he a white suburban resident, begins to come to terms with his own part in systemic racism in his community, and his two subjects, Kafi Dixon and Carl Chandler, become producers in a much different movie than the one he had originally planned.
Several movies do touch on COVID — “E14” (Feb. 20-28) was filmed from the director’s window during the U.K. lockdown. “57 Days” (Feb. 20-28) is portrait of a Spanish COVID patient, among the first taken to intensive care last year during the initial outbreak. Others are COVID-adjacent, such as “Red Heaven,” (Feb. 20-23) in which scientists spend a year inside a Mars simulation on Hawaii.
A great section to check out is the list of competition films (feature, shorts, mini-doc and Big Sky). The award-winners will be announced Thursday night, with encores the closing weekend of the festival.
An advantage of going virtual for the first time is the potential for filmmakers and former residents to tune in.
“We are going to be able to expand our audience to people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to come to attend the festival in Montana,” she said.