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Love Your Film Before You Let It Go: Programming the Big Sky Doc Fest

By KJ Relth

There’s not much to do in Missoula, Montana, during the winter, especially in the dead of February. During the coldest months, you can imagine most residents would like to do nothing more than avoid the cold until spring comes around. Cue the perfect reason to stay inside all day: the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. Now in its 9th year, this 10-day festival dedicated to nonfiction has become a destination for documentary filmmakers to share their projects with the world.

We wanted to learn more about this great festival and the people behind it. After speaking with Big Sky Festival Director and Programmer Michael Steinberg, we learned what the programmers expect from their submissions, how a sidebar can reflect a contemporary worldview, and why he loves films that stretch the form into new realms.

IDA: How did you find yourself in the Festival Director's seat?

Michael Steinberg: I've been involved with Big Sky for years. I actually had a film in the first festival. I was once a resident out here, a lowly little filmmaker living in Missoula. I left town, made a film and thought, "I wonder if I can get into Big Sky?" I submitted a film and they accepted it. Subsequently, the next few films I made ended up playing Big Sky. The relationship with the then-directors grew: I was asked to be a judge one year and did some programming for them.

When the position opened up I was contacted by some folks on the board who expressed an interest because my background in programming with the Webster Film Series in St. Louis made a real good fit: they really wanted to have a director/programmer. There's so much crossover between directing the festival and what gets programmed. Content often dictates the direction of the event. It made sense. And I wanted to move back to Missoula and so did my wife and my kiddos. It just was an absolute perfect fit.


The capacity crowd at Yo La Tengo's performance of The Sounds of Science at the 2011 Big Sky Documentary ilm Festival. Photo:  Patrick Record)

IDA: With Big Sky now in its ninth year, can you tell me a bit about the evolution of the Festival?

MS: You know, films really don't play in Missoula, Montana. There's a nice art house here and you get a lot of mainstream art [films], but a lot of documentaries, particularly nine years ago, were just not coming to Missoula. That was the intent of the [Big Sky] founders: to bring these films that never play here. It had this kind of necessity about it: We gotta bring this stuff that the rest of the world gets, or that at least San Francisco, New York and LA get. That was the impetuous for its founding.

That first year, I think there were maybe 50 films, it lasted for seven days, and it was just an immediate success. The community just totally got it and was obviously very hungry for something like the festival. That first year there were probably 3,000, 4,000 people. Now we're up to 12,000 people, and we've stretched to 10 days. Last year we had 145 films; we anticipate probably the same number this year.

Over the years, the industry relationships have grown really strong. So it's the evolution from "The community is here for us" to "The community is totally down for it and the industry is starting to really take notice and get involved."

IDA: When it comes time for submissions, what kind of films does your team of programmers like to see in their inbox?

MS: What we like to see are beautifully made, cinematic documentaries with strong characters and beautiful stories. That's what everyone wants to see. It might be the roughest, most gritty cinema vérité approach, and still be, of course, extremely beautiful. Or it could be polished 7D high-def scenics. Those are different versions of beauty. But what I mean is films that are just really, really well done and cinematic. We want to present those films.

If you take a look at our theater, which is sort of this miniature Castro, you understand we want to show beautiful films up on this beautiful screen in this great old theater. That's what we're looking for. I don't know any other way around explaining that except that you always know it when you see it.

IDA: Let's say someone from the future came and looked at the 2012 Big Sky program to get a glimpse of what life was like that year. Would they see any over-arching worldviews in the selections for this year's festival?

MS: They would. Starting, I think, in the third year of the festival, we began sidebar programming. Last year we did a sidebar about writing and literacy. And this year, our special focus is music. We'll have 30 or 40 music-related films, from concert and performance films to tour films about artists and the musical process, its effect on human life and how it forms our identity and culture.

In some sense I think [our sidebars] are all windows into our culture as a kind of global culture. If someone from the future looked at our programming they could say, "Oh, here is that human tendency to try and make sense of the world we live in." It ultimately becomes a representation of the time. We've also had a great history with retrospective programming: taking a particular artist and showing a large body of their work. or all of their work, for that matter. That also puts this form of documentary into a context.

IDA: What kind of stories were you expecting to see submitted this year but didn't quite find enough of?

MS: I actually thought there would be more films about the economy, and I'm a little surprised that there aren't. I mean, there have been plenty of films that sort of deal with that. There's a tendency sometimes for films to want to just tackle it [and try to make it] the end-all film about the failing economy [or] the absolute film about why you should legalize pot. And those films fail, in my opinion, by and large.

However, here's an example of a film that's totally about an issue and succeeds beyond expectations because of the people and the stories that are at the center of it, and that's How to Die in Oregon. It's not a polemic about Right to Die, it's not a polemic about the failures of the health care industry or our government. It's none of those things, although all of those issues and all of those opinions come about through characters and through the telling of a particular set of stories around these certain characters.

Given our climate, with Occupy [Wall Street] and how much the news is focused on the economy, headed into an election year, I expected to see more stuff that was expressing that. I'm not done; we're still in the open call. I've personally watched about 350 films and we have close to 1,000 again this year, and I'll probably watch another 200 before all's said and done. I guess I expected to see more films that tackled that in better ways, but that's always my hope.

Photo: Patrick Record

 IDA: Have you seen any films in recent years that have done a really good job of blurring that line between documentary and traditional narrative films? 

MS: Frankly, I think the other side of things, where a film stretches the boundaries of what nonfiction is to be stands out more. You can go back to Zelig or David Holzman's Diary for a film that's taking documentary aesthetics and telling a story with it.

IDA: That's really popular in television right now.

MS: It's super popular. It's not that I have no respect for that form; I think it's kind of great. What's been interesting me in the nonfiction form is where the boundaries get broken down in the other direction.

Exit Through the Gift Shop [...] sat with me for so long and I enjoyed so much the intent of that film--and even the execution and everything. I love that a prankster got his hands on the documentary form and did something really, really expansive with it. A filmmaker that I've always kind of admired is Caveh Zahedi, whose films are a kind of personal version of that. He's really polarizing, but I've always kind of admired his audacity. I Am a Sex Addict, for example, [he made] just to sort of rattle the form. I like it when it gets shaken up.

I'm ready to be really impressed by some fresh approach by some filmmaker who really says, "I'm going to take documentary form and do this to it!" There was a short film that was screened last year that was entirely re-creations called Summer Snapshot by Ian McCluskey. There's another shaking up of it. In the ‘80s when Errol Morris made Thin Blue Line, [there was] the whole question of "Can you use reeinactment?" And then of course it's immediately co-opted for crime shows on TV, so America's Most Wanted is basically a weekly version of Thin Blue Line. Where [Summer Snapshot] is manipulative in a great way is that it leans on what our sense of nostalgia is and our sense of what memory is and that there is an aesthetic, like kodochrome, that represents the idea of memory.

IDA: If there was one thing you could tell a documentary filmmaker who wanted to submit one of their films to your festival, what would that be?

I would say, Love your film before you let it go. This isn't a race. I know it's an expensive prospect and there's the hope of finding somebody once the damn thing is done and you want to get it out to the world, but you should love your film before you let go of it. Most films have claw marks all over them. It's kind of the opposite for some people where their friends are begging them to stop making that film, but you really should love what you've made before you let it out into the world.

If filmmakers trust themselves and they recognize that as competitive as the film world is, it's not a competition to get your film done. It should be a labor of love. It should be the only thing you really want to do in the world. It should come down to having a complete and undeniable passion for doing that thing.

The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival runs February 17-26, 2012. The full program can be downloaded here.

Katharine Relth is the Web Producer at the International Documentary Association. She has previously written about film for