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An exit interview with film festival director Amy Hetzler

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Sitting on a log along the parade grounds at Fort Missoula, Amy Hetzler looks content. Of course, she often has a complexion of contentment about her, as does almost everyone in Missoula who spends their time working in, dealing with, or thinking about nature. But today, she seems especially satisfied. The morning is cold and sunny. Her eager, overweight black dog is sitting beside her, panting and staring at Amy’s hands. And the 23rd International Wildlife Film Festival—the last festival to have Amy at the helm—is just days away.

“The joke is that there’s this unwritten rule: Ten festivals is all that anyone could ever be expected to do,” she says squinting in the sun. “And this is my tenth.” Since 1990, Amy has seen the film festival rise from a casual, student-run project to become one of the Garden City’s premier cultural events, and her own career has followed the arc of the festival’s success.

“I think I have taken the festival from where it was to where it is,” she says, with no false humility. “I have said for three years in a row, ‘This is my last festival.’ But the festival itself is such a renewing and invigorating and inspiring time, it reminds everyone involved why we do it and why we love it. I really do and have loved this job,” Amy says, “but it’s time to move on to something new.”

And what’s next for her is very new indeed. In about three weeks, she will leave her post as executive director of the IWFF to form RAT Studios, a new, Missoula-based, hi-tech television production company. RAT’s first project: “The Circle of the Sky,” a six-episode TV series dedicated to documenting Montana wildlife, shot entirely in high-definition video and surround sound. The concept was hatched last summer, when Amy and Robert Whitehair, the host of last summer’s “A Wildlife Showcase” broadcast of IWFF winners, hit upon the fact that PBS has never aired a series about Montana wildlife. But there’s more to it than that. The pair called up one of last year’s judges, Tim Barksdale, and a different kind of nature took its course.

“He was one of the first people that Robert and I thought of, then Tim came in June, and we got to become a little bit more than friends,” Amy says. “It’s all been a combination and sequence of events, probably the most important one being love.”

Certainly, no one can begrudge her for leaving on those grounds. Besides, Amy takes pride in the fact that she is parting with the festival while she’s still at her best. She refers to it, in fact, in television terms.

“I’m ‘Seinfelding’ my way out,” she says.

Amy expects the television project to take three years to complete. In the meantime, she’ll remain in town, volunteering each year when festival time rolls around. Despite all the lies ahead, she says, Missoula’s biggest community-fueled event is still too much to break with altogether. “It’s amazing what people have been willing to give and do and provide us,” Amy says. “And that has made my job a total joy.”

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