Ordinarily, news of a couple of Montana-made films’ acceptance to a Montana film festival might not be so newsworthy. But when the films were created by students of two different Indian reservations under the auspices of an award-winning media arts program, and when the festival is the largest of its kind in the American West and a darling of the industry, well, it just might be time to stop the presses.
Screen time at the 17th annual Big Sky Documentary Film Festival (BSDFF) isn’t the only thing “Looking Forward From Yesterday” and “In This Together, We Are One: The Buffalo Unity Project” have in common. Though separated by nearly two hundred miles of Montana’s Hi-Line, students at Harlem High School (near the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation) and Poplar Middle School (Fort Peck Indian Reservation) have each created gorgeous and powerful short films about reconnecting with nearly-vanished aspects of their cultures.
Both films are projects of MAPS Media Lab, the statewide outreach program of the MAPS Media Institute, a nationally awarded Montana-based educational nonprofit that offers free-of-charge, professional instruction in media arts to middle and high school students across the state. “Looking Forward From Yesterday” is laced with heavy beauty, as a combination of stunning landscape shots, found historical footage, and interviews with tribal elders weave together to tell a tale of pain, of loss, and ultimately of hope. It was filmed and edited in a five-day workshop in May of 2019, a timeline so truncated it makes the film’s accomplishments of storytelling craft even more impressive.
“This is the third film project we’ve done with the students of Harlem High School. These young artists have both skill and heart. They committed themselves to work hard during these few days of filming and editing, and it shows in the depth and creativity in the final production.” says MAPS Media Lab Director, filmmaker Dru Carr. “It’s such an honest and intimate portrayal of a challenging subject, and it was powered by the students’ commitment and courage. It’s been an honor to watch the growth in this group’s journey over the past several years.”
“In This Together, We Are One: The Buffalo Unity Project” explores cultural reconnection through a more specific lens. Filmed and directed by seventh-grade students at Poplar Middle School, it documents a new program on the Fort Peck Reservation that teaches students about the complex, symbiotic relationship between Plains Indians (the reservation is home to bands of the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes) and the American bison. The project culminates in the successful hunt of a reservation bison, with a particular focus on the spiritual connection between hunter and hunted.
Because of the age and relative inexperience of the filmmakers, MAPS Media Lab staff were more involved in the production, though the students did plenty of the film’s heavy lifting. “Students are more technically advanced than ever, but we were impressed by the maturity of these seventh graders,” Carr says. “They learned fast, worked hard, and put so much of themselves into the film.”
The Big Sky Documentary Film Festival runs Feb. 14 to 23 in downtown Missoula. Over the years it has grown into the premier film event in Montana, and is the largest U.S. documentary film festival west of the Mississippi. Though a hugely competitive festival — this year’s film entries totaled more than 2,000 — BSDFF is renowned among documentary filmmakers for its community-centered energy and inclusive access.
“It is an extraordinary honor to have MAPS productions screen again the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival,” says MAPS Executive Director Clare Ann Harff. “It’s such a unique and uplifting event, not only for the community of western Montana filmgoers who flock to Missoula in the middle of February, but also for the documentary film industry itself. And to have two of our student films play alongside some of the best non-fiction films in the world, well, let’s just say that we’re as proud as we can be and the celebration will be grand!”
It’s the second year in a row that a pair of MAPS films will screen at the prestigious festival. One of the 2019 entries—“Browning Rising Voices,” about an innovative poetry club on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation—recently won the 2019 National Student Production Award in the Short Form Non-Fiction category, awarded by the National Academy of Television Arts and Science, better known as the presenters of the Emmy Awards.
MAPS is able to provide its professional programs at no cost to students through the support of state and federal agencies, with significant investment from private foundations. “Looking Forward From Yesterday” was made possible in part by generous support from Montana GEAR UP and the Greater Montana Foundation. “In This Together, We Are One” was made possible in part by generous support from the Greater Montana Foundation and the Poplar School District.
For more information about BSDFF, including the screening schedules when released, please visit bigskyfilmfest.org. For more information about MAPS Media Institute, visit mapsmediainstitute.com.