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Big Sky Documentary Film Festival Brings Over 150 Documentaries To Missoula

It’s film festival season in Montana. And during the next 10 days more than 150 films will be shown in venues scattered around Missoula during the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival (BSDFF). MTPR's Cherie Newman talked with Gita Saedi Keily, Executive Director of BSDFF and Doug Hawes-Davis, Director of Programming, about this year’s festival.

Newman:  For me the most challenging part of participating in the festival as an audience member has always been trying to figure out what to see. I noticed on the web site that there are Strands. Explain what those are and how it helps people choose what they want to see.

Saedi Keily:  Sure. The strands are a way for us to sort a couple of the films with people’s interest. We have a strand on the arts, we have natural facts, we have senior films, “Younger Than Yesterday.” Some strands happen organically, but we also do special strands every year. This year we’re doing a special strand for the Americans with Disabilities Act. We’re also doing one commemorating Vietnam.

Hawes-Davis:  We’ve created the strands to help people who are interested in particular subjects find things, instead of having to look at every single 150 films. So, it is sort of a helpful guide, but I really recommend that you go see one film that the synopsis or the description is something you don’t think you’re particularly interested in. And you will find yourself pleasantly surprised when you go see these movies because one of our basic criteria is really trying to find films that are very creative. So documentary film is an art, and we want to honor and respect the art form, not just the subjects we have in the various strands. So, sometimes you might read a description and say eh, I don’t know. But my guess is that you’d be pleasantly surprised if you went ahead and saw it.

Newman:  Also on the schedule are two retrospectives. Tell us about those.

Saedi Keily:  Many of these documentary film makers, their career spans decades. And what’s so exciting about doing a retrospective at a film festival is we get to see somebody’s life’s work. So we’re doing two retrospectives this year. One is filmmaker Sam Green, who was nominated for an Academy Award in 2004 for his film "The Weather Underground". But he’s actually taken film beyond the big screen, and we’re gonna showcase a couple of his performances as well as all of his films. The other retrospective is John Cohen, best known for a band called the "New Lost City Ramblers", that was a big band in the ‘50s and ‘  60s. He’s also a filmmaker and a photographer. So we’re going to be showing his photographs, showing his films. And he’s going to be doing a special music performance at The Top Hat on February 8.

Hawes-Davis:  It’s a big program this year, we were sort of overwhelmed by the number of entries. We always get a lot, but this year was, I don’t know, 40 or 50 percent more than normal. Part of that was attributed to, probably, Movie Maker Magazine calling us one of the top 50 film festivals in the world that are worth the entry fee. Then also, last year we became an Academy-qualifying documentary film festival for documentary shorts. So our best short and our best min-doc will automatically qualify to run a campaign to potentially be nominated for an Oscar. So I think that really increased our shorts entries.

Saedi Keily:  We’re doing two new things this year. First, we’ve actually programmed films thinking about a younger audience. And so we’re doing a strand called "School House Docs": films that we’ve actually gotten rated for a younger audience that parents can go with their children to. We’re gonna do special after-school specials Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday of the film festival week, at 4:00 p.m. at the Wilma. The other thing that we’re doing for the first time this year is an interactive documentary film exhibit at the Missoula Art Museum, a documentary film that the viewer gets to guide, gets to route in different directions.

Newman:  The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival kicks off with a free screening of the controversial film "Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief". Find the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival schedule and details about all the events at the BSDFF website.

Chérie Newman is a former arts and humanities producer and on-air host for Montana Public Radio, and a freelance writer. She founded and previously hosted a weekly literary program, The Write Question, which continues to air on several public radio stations; it is also available online at and
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