Good luck trying to single out the most memorable moment from the dizzyingly dense, weeklong Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. For our money, it could have been the sight of 700-plus all-ages theatergoers snaked outside the Wilma and all the way onto the Higgins Avenue bridge waiting to see the premier of The Little Red Truck, a locally-made film about our own Missoula Children’s Theater. When the actual red trucks drove by, the crowd erupted. Or maybe it was that one climactic moment in Class C, a Montana-made film about women’s high school basketball, when a last-second shot careened off the rim and the nearly sold-out crowd collectively gasped—then laughed at how thoroughly they’d been sucked into the drama. Or perhaps it was the scene inside the smaller Wilma 2 theater on a sleepy Monday morning, when a work in progress, Little Mom Full of Color, the filmmaker’s tale of her mother’s long-term illness and eventual death, left a packed house with nary a dry eye. The audience moved from the theater into some sort of cathartic huddle on the street, all hugging, crying and talking about what they’d just watched.

Every year the folks at Big Sky amaze with their inspiring and seemingly endless lineup of new and challenging documentaries. But for all the credit we wish to heap on the organizers, this year seemed to belong as much to the theatergoers as to the films and filmmakers themselves. Whether it was the highly anticipated Kurt Cobain: About a Son, which played during prime time on a Saturday and was still garnering thumbs-up/thumbs-down discussion days later, or one of the lesser hyped shorts programs that played in the awkward afternoon hours, audiences turned out in record numbers. In fact, Programming Director Doug Hawes-Davis reported even before Wednesday’s award screenings—congrats to Jimmy Rosenberg, Class C and Conviction for taking top honors—that attendance was up 25 percent this year, making it the biggest festival yet.

“The audience is always the most important thing,” Hawes-Davis said. “For example, I get psyched every year about scheduling the annual retrospective, and this year the Perry Films stuff basically sold out every day. That really shows Missoula’s not only interested in the latest and greatest, but documentary films in general.” 

And how. Despite our blurry eyes and popcorn-engorged stomachs, we’re already geared up for whatever’s in store next year.
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