Skip to main content

Truth in the Big Sky State: Montana Hosts a Doc Fest

By Sarah Jo Marks

February 16, 2007

I'm in Missoula, Montana for the 4th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. People keep asking me if it's cold here. It is.

I got in last night and hoofed it the Wilma Theatre. It's the real home of the fest; it's got about 1,100 seats, and I think almost all of them were full for the world premiere of a new HBO doc, Montana Meth. The film is disturbing. Montana apparently has the second highest meth problem in the United States--just what I wanted to know before I walked the 10-minute walk back to my hotel alone.

I'm on the jury here, looking at short docs and "MiniDocs" (What's a MiniDoc?!).

Also, Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? is showing here on Monday night. There's a great review in the alternative weekly paper, the Missoula Independent.

February 22, 2007

Time for another whirlwind doc roundup.

I got back from Big Sky Documentary Film Festival on Tuesday. I think a good time was had by all. The locals are thrilled to have guests. And the guests are thrilled to be visiting the 60,000-person town. I stayed at the Red Lion Inn. Sounds fancy, I know. They're all about your comfort. In the middle of the night, I was dreaming about trains, and I woke up to find a railroad crossing outside my window. 

I had a lot of shorts to watch over the course of four days as a member of the documentary shorts jury, and I dove right in on Friday as the festival kicked into full swing. The festival played a whole program of films from the International Documentary Challenge. It's very cool: Teams sign up, get a genre and then have five days to make a short doc. It's pretty amazing that anything worked out at all. The 2007 edition of the Challenge is just around the corner, and it runs March 1-5.

I spent the evening doing a movie and dinner. And really I think it's a great thing for the festival to market it as an activity. I went to see The War Tapes and then joined some fellow jurors and friends for dinner at 5:15. We ate in the wine bar, which has a different menu than the upstairs la-de-da restaurant. But we managed to eat everything (maybe a few too many things) and gorge on two orders of wild boar short ribs from the upstairs menu. Ooooh...what a wait-staff will do to keep a group of seven from up and leaving.

The rest of the fest included more films, panels, parties and even a late night of bowling at Liberty Lanes (Steve James is a pretty good bowler!). My last night in Missoula, I spent two hours deliberating with the shorts jury while Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore? screened in the 1,100 seat Wilma Theatre. By the time my co-jurors and I emerged with our Big Sky winners freshly picked, I watched Mr. Smith producer Mike Kime answer questions about the film, and from what I could tell from the Q&A and major audience response, Mr. Smith picked up some new fans.


Here are the 2007 Big Sky Documentary Film Festival Award Winners:

Best Feature: The Cats of Mirikitani; Linda Hattendorf, director.
Best Short: A Revolving Door; Marilyn Braverman, director.
Best MiniDoc: Ha Ha Ha America; JD Ligon, director.
Big Sky Award: Salvation Mountain; Travis Peterson, director.
Artistic Vision Award: The Colour of Olives; Carolina Rivas, director.
Artistic Vision Award: Seeds; Wojciech Kasperski, director.


The festival staff and volunteers were incredibly accommodating. It was great to watch docs with friends and make new ones in the friendly town.

Sarah Jo Marks can be reached at

Well, you've heard from a juror; now, here's a report, in the form of a big, open-hearted letter, from filmmaker Hilari Scarl:

February 22, 2007

An open letter to Big Sky Film Festival-

I have just returned home to Los Angeles after an absolutely exhilarating week with the Big Sky Film Festival in Missoula, Montana. I was impressed beyond belief with your festival, from the top-notch programming down to the happiest volunteers on earth. It is hard to believe that you are only in your fourth year, since you are better organized than many larger, more established festivals. My small, six-minute documentary received the same attention as the headlining features, and you made me feel every bit as important. 

I was inspired to write this letter during my 4:30 a.m. shuttle ride back to the airport, when every passenger that was picked up throughout Missoula knew each other and I realized how unique this "Whoville-esque" town really is. Dozens of shops, pubs, restaurants and galleries bent over backwards to welcome the film community, and we were treated to outstanding food and local color. Who knew that Missoula could serve up hearty salmon bisque while listening to a local bluegrass band?

Maybe it was the extra oxygen, but to have the opportunity to listen to the audience brainstorm with Les Blank about his tea film's title after his screening, and hear Steve James discuss the future of documentary in a modern art museum was enthralling.

I had the chance to see the world premieres of many diverse documentaries, including the film about photographer Milton Rogovin (The Rich Have Their Own Photographers), the lawn industry (Gimme Green), nuns in a Tibetan monastery (Daughters of Wisdom), farm auctioneers (Fast Talkers) and the world's largest gumboot in Australia (Big Dreamers). It was also invigorating to watch documentary enthusiasts line up around the block to see Jesus Camp, F*ck and Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?

Thank you for an extraordinary experience and for providing me with many new friends and inspirational moments. I will definitely be back!

Your newest fan,
Hilari Scarl