An Independent guide to the 14th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival


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All the Rage, a film directed by Suki Hawley, David Beilinson and Michael Galinsky, begins with a quote from Arthur Conan Doyle: "There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact." It's a strange springboard for a film in which facts initially appear to be pretty wily, but by the end it reads as perfectly apt. On the surface, All the Rage [Elks Lodge. Sat., Feb. 18, at 8:15 p.m.] is a story about chronic pain and a doctor's quest to help people get rid of it. But it's really about the stories people tell themselves about themselves, despite the facts that are right in front of their faces. It's about the devastations of childhood, the rage of the impoverished and disenfranchised and the dismissal of science despite all evidence.


As a showcase for documentary work, the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival deals in facts as deployed in stories. In its 14th annual iteration, during a year in which "alternative facts" has emerged as a government-sanctioned synonym for lies, the very concept of factuality takes on added importance. The 10-day festival hosts more than 150 nonfiction films about people and places both foreign (Bosnian motorcycle clubs) and familiar (Yellowstone bison). And, as befits the world into which they're being born, a significant number of these films focus on issues, from climate change to riverine pollution to conflict in the Middle East. What these films accomplish when they succeed, like All the Rage does, is more than just a feverish sorting of facts from fake news. These films seek to discover and share truth. They may not always get there—documentarians know better than most how slippery an entity truth often turns out to be—but if recent months have taught us anything, it's the importance of at least aiming for the target. Here are some that rang true to us.

What you need to know

When: Fri., Feb. 17, through Sun., Feb. 26

Where: All screenings and events are at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography, The Wilma, the Roxy, the Hell Gate Elks Lodge theater, the Public House and MCT Center for the Performing Arts

All-access pass: $325

All-screenings pass: $175

Five-punch pass: $40/$30 students and seniors

Individual film tickets: $9/$7 students and seniors

Tickets available online and at Rocky Mountain School of Photography

Visit for more info


Indigenous visions: Oyate, Tribal Justice, Badger Creek

Gerald Vizenor, the Anishinaabe cultural theorist who popularized the word "survivance," defines it as "an active sense of presence, a continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction or a survivable name." In other words, "survivance" acknowledges cultural trauma, historical genocide, and current political, economic, social and cultural realities without viewing them through the lens of victimization.

If that sounds like a lot of dense academese, that's because it is. Luckily, three films playing at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival deftly address this complex subject without so much as glancing at theory—which is exactly the right approach to take. They offer a view into the dynamic, beautiful, dysfunctional and hopeful lives of a handful of individuals from four tribes: Lakota, Piikáni (Blackfeet), Yurok and Quechan.

Oyate is an intimate look at two families on the Pine Ridge Reservation. It's a subtle, somewhat wandering film, and the viewer comes away with impressions rather than distinctive narratives. The film intentionally combats stereotypes associated with reservations"poverty porn," as one character unflinchingly calls it—and what replaces the stereotype is, of course, far more complex and less definable. The film features rodeos and fireworks and laughing children on trampolines, newborn infants and weddings, and also dilapidated trailers, struggling single fathers and the specter of addiction lurking at every turn. Most important, we see unfailing familial bonds and a fierce love that thrives despite—or perhaps because of—the realities in which the people of Pine Ridge live.

The narrative is clearer in Tribal Justice, a film that shadows two tribal judges, both of whom are pushing for innovative and holistic approaches to criminal justice. The Yurok and Quechan tribes are working with the state of California to implement rehabilitation and redemption programs instead of focusing on punishment, applying the approach to meth addicts, heroin users, juvenile offenders and kids caught up in Child Protective Services. The logic and the results are unassailable: Offenders are treated as individuals and offered the opportunity to rehabilitate within the framework of their own tribe. The chance for success is markedly higher. Personal accountability becomes a point of pride. Ceremony and song provide support, as do family and community. Makepeace Productions offers a hopeful example of what's possible when the legal system takes a personalized approach to justice, but it doesn't shy away from the grim reality that no matter how well intentioned their judges, some offenders can't escape their pasts.

Badger Creek
  • Badger Creek

Badger Creek is the shortest of the three films, but maybe the most successful. Judicious editing allows the characters, scenery and loose narrative to weave together seamlessly. Shot on the Blackfeet Reservation, the film focuses on one extended family that has chosen to embrace Piikáni tradition, culture and language as a means of avoiding the darker possibilities of reservation life. The patriarch says at one point, "We stopped that cycle of drinking and drugs. ...I wanted to learn as much as I could [about the old ways] so that I could give that option to my kids. ...I feel real fortunate that generations down the line, they can come back and say, 'They did something for us, and we've learned a lot from those generations.'"

These three films are powerful in many ways, but perhaps most significantly because they highlight a sense of community, family, spirituality and rootedness that is often painfully and obviously absent from mainstream culture. The examples of reservation life and portraits of individuals illustrate vital lessons about what's necessary to be whole as a human. Badger Creek wraps up by stating the sentiment succinctly: "We teach our children, you gotta be who you are as an individual, but you're always a part of this tribe, this family. Because we're always Piikáni, and this is where we come from." (Melissa Mylchreest)

Oyate screens at MCT Mon., Feb. 20, at 3 PM.

Tribal Justice screens at the Elks Mon., Feb. 20, at 8 PM and the Wilma Tue., Feb. 21, at 6:30 PM.

Badger Creek screens at the Wilma Sun., Feb. 19, at 2:45 PM and Sun., Feb. 26, at 3:15 PM.

100 Years: One Woman's Fight For Justice

For 15 years, Elouise Cobell proved herself a warrior in the fashion of her great-grandfather, legendary Blackfeet leader Mountain Chief. People in Montana watched her legal battle against the federal government unfold slowly, even ploddingly, over a span that encompassed three presidential administrations. Cobell never gave up her tenacious pursuit of justice for Native Americans whose trust accounts had been grotesquely mismanaged for more than a century. Former Sen. Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat who served as chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said it best: "If you're ever going to take on an adversary in life, I would not suggest you pick Elouise."

What Montanans may not have heard during those years were the stories of the poverty-stricken and disenfranchised tribal members across the country for whom Cobell so tirelessly fought. And while Melinda Janko's 2016 documentary, 100 Years, spends much of its time with Cobell, the moments that stand out most are those spent with other characters: Dorothy Wilson, James "Mad Dog" Kennerly, Harry Johnson and his mother, Mary. They live hardscrabble lives on reservations, getting by on the meagerest of government checks for use of their allotted lands—if the checks come at all. Cobell's fear throughout her class-action lawsuit was that justice would not come in time for the eldest of those plaintiffs.

100 Years: One Woman’s Fight For Justice
  • 100 Years: One Woman’s Fight For Justice

Taken as a documentary of the landmark Cobell case, 100 Years feels chronologically fragmented at times, and leaves unaddressed the equally maddening struggle for congressional approval of the $3.4 billion settlement. But there are enough revelations here to forgive the lack of signposts, particularly regarding the deplorable manner in which trustee records were stored at various Bureau of Indian Affairs offices around the U.S. The toll that plaintiff deaths took on Cobell as events played out is equally stirring, as the fierce warrior is forced to grapple with the halting pace of bureaucracy.

Many plaintiffs did not live long enough to see the first settlement payments. Cobell was among them. The greatest story left untold in 100 Years is Cobell's simultaneous battle with cancer, which claimed her life on Oct. 16, 2011. It's a story Cobell largely kept to herself, instead willing the focus onto those for whom she sought justice. In that sense, Janko's film is a fitting tribute—not a rehash of a 15-year lawsuit, but a light shed on the hardships that lawsuit was meant to correct. (Alex Sakariassen)

Screens at the Wilma Sun., Feb. 19, at 2:45 PM and Wed., Feb. 22, at 8:45 PM.



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