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Big Sky Documentary Film Festival 2017: Missoula, Montana

Big Sky Documentary Film Festival 2017

“After viewing more than 42 films in five days I am at peace”.

Big Sky Documentary Film Festival powered by audience Awards

Big Sky Documentary Film Festival powered by audience Awards

I came, I saw, I fell asleep exhausted exhausted every evening and sometimes (shhhh) during films in darkened theaters. The Wilma, the Elks, Missoula Children’s Theatre and the Roxy…I have been in all your seats. I travelled the globe, heard new voices in languages I did not understand. Read a few subtitles. This is the power of film.

In Missoula, once a year, films and filmmakers, agents and patrons collide in the most spectacular mixing of creativity this side of, well, this side of The Divide. Those from Montana know about the power of the divide.

I’ve eaten in The Break, Bernice’s, the Mustard Seed, the Mo Club, the deli up the street and the Red Bird. Often not balanced meals, but snacks between films. And espresso. Time to dine becomes expendable.

In the past two days I’ve been on a modern-day treasure hunt in New Mexico,  photographed gorgeous and newly discovered insects in Columbia and Peru, explored caves of exotic bats in Mexico, roamed around the forbidden and radioactive Zone surrounding Chernobyl, visited a diminishing village in Bulgaria, listened to nature in “silent” parts of the Olympic Peninsula, thought about the value of solitude faced by a border agent in Argentina.

My heart has been broken witnessing refugee camps for Syrian refugees, and lifted up by films about Canada’s efforts to resettle immigrants in Vancouver, BC. Welcome to Canada, produced by Adam Loften, Mary Fowles, 2016, USA, Canada.

This short film tells the story of Mohammed Alsaleh, a young Syrian refugee granted asylum in Canada after fleeing torture and imprisonment by the Assad regime. While rebuilding his life in Vancouver, he assists newly-arrived Syrian refugee families to resettle, finding new homes and new beginnings.  I wish every citizen of the USA would watch this film for understanding.

My final selection, Learning to See: The World of Insects, set in the rain forests of Columbia and Peru, following a man who turned his mid-life crisis into a self-taught passion for photographing insects, proved to be a peaceful finale. I was captivated with the exotic, brilliant photographic imagery of Robert Oelman and the narrative within the film, shot and directed by his son Jake Oelman. Bravo!! In the Q and A following the  showing Tuesday night, Jake shared the excitement third graders in the Missoula schools exhibited today when the film was shown. Those bright, young minds are of the age when collecting insects is still cool, for they are yet curious about their natural world. They heard that there are scientific discoveries still being made, and that as habitat is destroyed worldwide our opportunities are fading.

“Rapid habitat loss and mass extinction events are alarming. We don’t know how many insects we are losing and what purpose they serve.” Robert Oelman.

I should also mention that I met Jake on a festival shuttle bus one evening in Missoula. We exchanged film-festival small talk and I vowed to see his film. What he shared in those two minutes of a chance encounter proved magical. So typical of the Big Sky Festival. Chance encounters lead to viewing films one might otherwise miss.  I had a chance to chat with him post viewing, to ask a few questions and share my enthusiasm about the film. That doesn’t happen in one’s local theatre. For more on Jake Oelman and his film :



One of many cool insects photographed by Robert Oelman.

Films to see on Monday

I’ve been chatting with various film makers this week and it seems all of them are showing their films today! The guy from London, the men from Germany and now the guy from the shuttle bus last night with an insect film. Once I meet the filmmakers I feel obligated in a good way to attend their screenings.

Here are my three must see films today:

Learning to See: The World of Insects.

This film tells the story of photographer Robert Oelman who leaves his psychology career in the early 1990s to pursue photography. He moves from the United States to Colombia and purchases a small farm in the hills. On his journeys through the rain forests of the Amazon Basin he begins to take striking photographic images of undiscovered insects. After more than twenty years of traveling, searching and photographing, his quest culminates with a New York City gallery show. He also learns that these tiny life forms must continue to survive. They are at the bottom of the mammalian food chain and are critically important to all animal species including mankind. Website:

Roadside Radiation: With stories and impressions from the zone of alienation around the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, ROADSIDE RADIATION portrays the different fates of its past and present residents and researches the complex human consequences of the Chernobyl catastrophe: a place of collective loss but also of individual survival.Website:

The filmmakers are from Germany, and I chatted with them at baggage claim at the Missoula Airport upon our arrival from Seattle. Glad I saw their film!  It is quite thought provoking and informative as followup on a well known radiation disaster, and to see the lingering emotional and physical effects. Director Moritz Schultz. DOP Julian Springhart.

The Lure: 

In 2010, art dealer Forrest Fenn hid a cache worth millions somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. Publishing a cryptic poem with clues to its location, the eccentric millionaire offered the Fenn Treasure up for grabs to anyone who could find it – and tens of thousands have heeded his call. Executive produced by Errol Morris, THE LURE tells the story of this legendary buried treasure, as revealed through a number of treasure hunters, each driven by something more than simple wealth. Website:

Clearly you see the time management issue before me.

Snowing lightly this morning after days of sunshine with relatively mild (upper 30s to 40 degree range) weather. Into it I boldly go, hood up, boots laced, latte in hand.

Featured Films, Sunday the 19th

It may be possible to overdose on films, but the strength of documentaries is their ability to inform. If you are curious about the world, documentaries  deliver. Today’s lineup offered national and global glimpses.

Films set in barbershops are popular. I still remember one from a few years ago that featured a barber in the Portland, Oregon area who specialized in men’s eyebrow thinning. Purpose: to increase energy flow to the patron. Might be something to that.

This year I’ve enjoyed two barbershop films: the Barber of Augusta (set in Toronto, Canada) and Sharp ( set in Bozeman, Montana).

Sharp is a more conventional look at the culture of men’s barbershops and the relationships that ensue. A rather hip barbershop. Duncan Williamson, 2016, USA

Barber of Augusta  ( Website: focuses on a young man who struggles with an anxiety disorder and finds his calling cutting hair, often in a superhero costume, on street corners offering free trims to the homeless. Both are empathetic glimpses into a sacred space and relationships we often share with our hair dressers and barbers. Michele Hozer, Director. Canada

Our Last Refuge tells the story of the Badger-Two Medicine, sacred homeland of the Blackfeet Nation in Montana, and the decades-long struggle to stop gas exploration. It’s a straightforward explanation of the community struggle to reverse leases granted during the Reagan administration. Up-to-date reporting. Daniel Glick , 2016, USA. Website:

Winter’s Watch, a haunting film set on a remote island off the coast of New Hampshire, shares the life of a winter caretaker of the Oceanic Hotel on Star Island during the off season. The solitude and sparseness of the landscape offer a rare glimpse into the strength of character it takes for the task. Brian Bolster, Director. Two of his previous films, including The Lookout and The Merc, have been Montana favorites.


In the Shadow of Coal: Keeping A Ranch that Can be Passed Down, a hot topic in Montana in particular, with ripples all over the West. One of a series of films on this topic. Bringing it to a personal level.

In “Keeping a Ranch That Can Be Passed On,” we view the struggles  Jeanie Alderson’s family is facing while ranching Montana’s Tongue River Valley since 1889, weathering world wars and the Depression. Jeanie’s water is now threatened by proposed coal mines that must drain the aquifer to extract the coal. In arid Montana, water is life.

In The Shadow of Coal Series . 

Friday, Feb 24th @ 3:15 pm – Elks Lodge 
Saturday, Feb 25th @ 12:15 pm – Public House 
Saturday, Feb 25th @ 3:00 pm – Elks Lodge 


My International picks of the day:

The Loners Game, a profoundly visual  film, profiling an Argentinian who patrols his country’s mountainous border frontier solo. Often among towering icefalls and crevasses with crampons. We feel his solitude and appreciate through his dialogue his desire to be alone. It plays again Monday, Feb 20th, 5:30 PM at the Elks. Silvana Barrero, 2016, Argentina — 23 minutes.

Baba Usta, Where we all End Up, a Turkish film, explores political chicanery involved  in the non-granting of a license to a man who runs a business creating ornate above-ground grave markers (marble crypts)  in a local cemetery. The businessman in question is an affable Turk with a Slavic look, who is understandably upset when the police order him to remove his mobile office, which is located alongside the road near a cemetery. He explains to us that there are no office spaces to rent nearby and that he has been wronged unfairly by the local government who has given an exclusive license to his competitor. With all the current politics in Turkey this film slyly gives us a glimpse of protest. An honest look at modern day Turkey and problems familiar to entrepreneurs worldwide. Showing again, Sunday, Feb 26th, 12:45 PM, at the Roxy 2. I fell in love with the kindness and humanity of this film. A Northwest Premier.  Abdurrahman Baştuğ, Ozgun Kabakcioglu, 2015, Turkey — 22 minutes

Featured Films Saturday the 18th.

Films start early here in the Big Sky. Two outstanding films began in the Roxy Theatre at 10:30 AM today:

Telling the Story of Slavery, Kalim Armstrong, Director. It’s a short documentary about the first museum in America dedicated to exploring the legacies of slavery. The museum is founded on the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana and funded by John Cummings.

It’s a former plantation founded in 1752 and located in Louisiana along the historic River Road, which winds down the Mississippi towards New Orleans. John Cummings, a lawyer who founded the museum, spent sixteen years planning and over eight million dollars of his own money to restore this site, which honors the memory of those who were enslaved on plantations and whose labor helped build this country. The Whitney Plantation is not a place designed to make people feel guilt, or to make people feel shame. It is a site of memory, a place that exists to further the necessary dialogue about race in America. This is a film about this place, its founders, and how it is helping America understand it’s most unpleasant past.

An excellent film, moving and informative. I’d go if I were in the area.

That was followed by Parque Central, a film shot in Antigua Guatemala. An experiential film, we follow young people who shine shoes, sell ice cream from a rolling cart and sell hair ties in the central square of the city. These are youngsters, and the presumption is they are working instead of going to school. The film mentions the distressed economy forcing country families to send their children to the city to make money, living in subsistence conditions. A bit short on dialogue but rich with cinema verite film work. The viewer is made to draw their own conclusions, and it’s hard on the heart. An earnest film. Directed by Ricardo Gaona.


If you love reality this Festival is for you. Over 140 documentaries in ten days. Multiple venues. Located in Missoula, known for craft beers, boots, snow, live music, college atmosphere and great food. Big screens.

Filmmakers Arrive:

Friday the 17th:  Film makers and press arrived this morning in Missoula to a theatrical welcome at the airport.

Tomas 4x4 Leach London filmmaker 20170217_094441Tomas Leach, of London and LA. Filmmaker, Director and Cinematographer of the film: The Lure, Plays Monday the 20th at 5:30 PM at the Elks.

The Lure tells the story of a legendary buried treasure hunt for a cache worth millions, hidden by art dealer Forrest Fenn,  in the Rocky Mountains in 2010. There will be a Q and A following.  Also showing Saturday the 25th, 8:30 PM at the Elks. Check out the story about this film in this week’s Independent.

German film makers from Freiburg arrived with  Roadside Radiation, a film featuring stories and impressions from the zone of alienation around the Chernobyl Nuclear Plant.  Showing: Monday, Feb 20th 1:15 PM at the Roxy. Director Moritz Schultz. DOP  Julian Springhart.

Mackenzie 4x5 from Alaska 20170217_094509_edited-1

And Mackenzie from Alaska, representing a PBS type station. More on her work when I find out more. She is very excited to be in Missoula!

I’ve had a chance to interview a few filmmakers in advance of the festival. I’ve seen these films now and was touched by all of them. I think they are worth tracking down.


Films you may want to watch:

Being Hear

Being Hear, a ten minute short documentary is a sensory film. A gorgeous film exploring the natural sounds in quiet places. In this case within the Olympic National  Park in the most north-western portion of Washington State. A land of hanging moss, giant trees and ferns, and over 300 inches of rain per year–a rain forest.

A  land where natural beauty and sounds can be found if you look. The title suggests listening, and in this case the film is a mix of nature photography from the Olympic Peninsula, the largest coniferous forest and only rain forest in the United States, with a natural soundtrack and a bit of narration.

Here is an  interview with Co-Producer Matthew Mikkelsen produced for KSVR fm, Community Radio for the Skagit Valley.

A Bold Peace

Co-Producer Matthew Eddy discusses this feature length documentary, set in Costa Rica. A country with no military for the past sixty years. How does a country in Latin America navigate security without a military?

Full of interviews and historic clips of past leadership, this film offers much food for thought in a time when again America flexes muscle.

Eddy offers insight into his personal family history that influenced his choice of subject matter.

Listen here: An interview with Matthew Eddy.



Ch’aak’ S’aagi         Eagle Bone

Tracy Rector USA 5 minutes 2016 Lashootseed English Tlingit VR

Eagle Bone is a short Virtual Reality documentary film.   Mischa Jakupcak is a principal in Mechanical Dreams (a Virtual Reality content producer) and co- producer of this film.

Eagle Bone is a short film, yet quite intriguing. It flows as an illustrated, indigenous-based spoken world poem. I has been described as  “A VR journey of remembrance and reflection on the lessons of the old ones. Teachings that remind us that we are all individual vessels of spirit and change yet inextricably connected.”

Beautiful and spiritual, watch for this film. Our understanding is that it will be a continuously available for viewing Virtual Reality offering in Missoula. Ask for it’s location.

For more insight listen here: as heard on KSVR fm radio, Mt. Vernon, Washington.

Join us in Missoula February 17- 26th. Prepare to be amazed and informed.


For additional information and schedules of the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival:


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Category: Indie It Art & Film, Indie It Art, Film & Theatre, Indie It Film

About the Author: Ann Bodle-Nash: A free-lance traveler since the age of 11 months, little moss grows on her soles. With relatives and friends scattered across the globe, she finds frequent excuses to travel. But travel in the West is best--those quiet corners of weirdness are like light to a moth, burning with intensity, encouraging curiosity and discovery. She imagines the glory of 30 days of continuous floating and fly fishing on the Yellowstone River after watching a documentary on same. Currently living in Washington State with her husband.

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