The pandemic has affected industries around Montana, with unique challenges in documentary filmmaking. One team had to decide whether COVID-19 should become an unavoidable part of an unfolding story.

Another had to ask whether they could safely continue a project without endangering themselves and subjects.

And several need to examine how a finished movie can reach an audience if the important festival circuit is disrupted and theaters remain closed.

Here are three examples of how Missoula filmmakers are forging ahead.

Part of the story

In the case of one film, COVID-19 entered the narrative and aligned with one of its core themes.

In February, during the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival, Missoula director Kelly Bouma pitched a short documentary portrait about a local senior and her love of bowling as a lens on senior citizens’ isolation in American society.

She won, securing $25,000 in funding through the IF/Then American West Shorts Pitch from the Tribeca Film Institute in partnership with ESPN, a package that also includes mentoring and professional work on post-production.

Bouma envisioned “Life in the Slow Lane” as an examination of society’s isolation of seniors, told through a portrait of Lois Chinadle, an 84-year-old Missoula resident. After moving here three years ago, Lois felt deeply lonely until she found camaraderie and community at the Missoula Senior Center and in a bowling league.

Those themes were colored with unexpected tints and shades when the pandemic threatened to reach Montana.

"Things got a little weird," Bouma said, and she knew the Senior Center would have to close.

In early March, before cases were announced here, Bouma and her cinematographer, Mike Steinberg, shot with Lois for three days, in her home, the Senior Center and the bowling alley. 

After Gov. Steve Bullock issued a stay-at-home order, they filmed from outside the house as Lois sat in her window, and she discussed the pain of isolation — the very thing she had escaped.

Once the alley re-opened, the social distancing made her feel as though she was shopping by herself in a grocery store, which Bouma and Steinberg filmed from a distance with masks on. 

Bouma’s will be part of the first generation of documentaries about the pandemic, which she considers a mixed blessing.

They secured their funding before Tribeca Film Institute announced that it would close. The IF/Then Shorts Program became Field of Vision, and if they think the film has potential, they would help guide her through the distribution process, Bouma said. 

Bouma thinks that because it’s part of the first round of COVID-19 films, it might draw more attention, although she's saddened by the fact that the pandemic is part of it. She wonders, will people want to watch movies about coronavirus? 

But she’s encouraged by the growth of online platforms for films.

“Who knows? Maybe it’ll get a bigger audience than it would have if everything was normal,” she said.

Shooting goes on pause

“When They Were Here,” a documentary about the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, had gained serious momentum.

After three to four years of advocacy, short films, pre-production shoots and fundraising and more, siblings Ivan and Ivy MacDonald were set to begin production on a feature-length movie this summer.

They planned to shoot the majority of the movie on the Blackfeet and Crow reservations. In Browning, Kimberly Loring has been searching for her sister, Ashley Loring HeavyRunner, who has been missing since 2017. On the Crow reservation, Jennifer White Bear and her family seek justice for her daughter, Bonnie Three Irons, who was murdered in 2017. In Missoula, Lonette Keehner was murdered at her workplace, the Super 8 Motel, by a meth addict, and her daughter, Nicole Walksalong, has advocated to share more of her mother's story and campaign for justice.

"We got a really amazing headwind in production funding" from Vision Maker Media, Ivan said. The two had earned the backing of various kinds from a huge list of supporters: the Independent Television Service, the International Documentary Association, the Big Sky Film Institutes Native Filmmaker Initiative, Tribeca Film Institute, Humanities Montana and more.

The notion of filming on reservations, which around the United States have been disproportionately hard-hit by the spread of COVID, has forced them to pause for at least a year.

"Knowing that we have family there, would it be wise for us to come in as technically outsiders, even though we are Blackfeet? You know, coming in and possibly exposing these vulnerable families and communities?" said Ivan, who also noted that he himself is high-risk.

Ivy said that as a filmmaker, it's hard — she loves shooting, after all. But the two said the postponement has given them more time to work on their treatment.

"It's been good to kind of step back and re-examine all of the footage that we already have right now, and re-examine the story and kind of dial it down to the point so that when we start shooting again, we’ll just kind of be able to go with the flow and shoot exactly what we want to shoot," she said.

It will also give them more time to work with mentors on various parts of the project. In the interim, they're staying in touch constantly with the families, and working on a fundraiser to help Loring with searches.

The issue hasn't gone away with the pandemic, either.

"That’s something we’re always try to tell people, that even though our project is on pause there’s still all of these ways that you can support this movement," Ivan said.

'Daughter of a Lost Bird'

In the film "Daughter of a Lost Bird," Kendra Mylnechuk seeks out to reconnect with her birth mother, April Kowalski.

Distribution during a pandemic

“Daughter of a Lost Bird” is a trans-racial adoption story about seven years in the making, exploring a large issue through the lens of a Missoula woman's personal experience.

“What does blood have to do with identity?" their log line reads. "Kendra Mylnechuk, an adult Native adoptee, born in 1980 at the cusp of the enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act, is on a journey to reconnect with her birth family and discover her Lummi heritage.”

Shooting for the film is mostly complete, they have “finish-line funding,” and are heading into post-production, said Brooke Swaney, who’s director and is co-producing with Mylnechuk.

While they've had to conduct a few shoots with safety precautions such as masks, the main disruption for them comes in traditional distribution models, Swaney said. 

"In normal times, we would be looking towards doing a robust festival run with the film,” she said, including cross-country screenings at festivals in addition to educational showings at colleges and in Indigenous communities.

Swaney, who is Blackfeet-Salish and was a Sundance NativeLab Fellow in 2012, said their goal is to have the film accepted to Sundance Film Festival, which is planning on adding at least 20 locations besides its home base in Utah.

She’s also optimistic about the interest in online festivals and streaming platforms since movie theaters are closed and audiences are watching more at home than ever. For instance, the Missoula-based International Wildlife Film Festival moved to a streaming-only model in March and had one of its best years ever.

"It's not all bad news," Swaney said, it's just a question of what roll-outs could look like as they move toward a winter release.

“Now that people are stuck at home, they want content to watch. In a way, rather than having all these public screenings, it's just having access to these streaming platforms and digital platforms that I think are really important for the life of a film anyway, but even more so now,” she said.

Through their funding, they have connections with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and hope that PBS could use the film in its broadcasts, reaching yet another audience.

Before the pandemic, their hope was to screen the film for Native communities around the country. Since those communities are at risk to be significantly more affected by the pandemic, that will have to wait until it’s safe, Swaney said.

"We're hopeful that we can do it someday," she said.