They had me at “Montana.”

I first visited Montana six years ago to shoot my college thesis film. Ever since, I’d been dying to get back to the Big Sky state. In February, I had the opportunity to do so when my last film, Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith, was invited to screen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival. The film’s producer, Patrick Lane, and I blocked out the entire week so that we could experience the festival in its entirety. It was the best decision we’ve ever made.

First, the selection of documentaries is tops. These films vary in topic, locale and language but transport audiences to places near and far. Programmers make sure that there is something for everyone—eclectic, powerful, transformative and all of such high quality. The high filmmaker attendance rate allows most screenings to have extensive Q&As. These are a treat, especially for documentaries. Audiences fill the theaters, whether it’s a Saturday night premiere or a Monday lunchtime matinee.

The networking opportunities—at least two events per day—also make Big Sky stand out. You really get to develop relationships with other filmmakers and industry professionals. And you get to see Missoula at the same time.

The Hellgate Elks Lodge Theater in Missoula, Montana is a venue for BSDFF

Big Sky’s DocShop is an intensive week packed with panels and workshops led by industry experts. With documentary shorts taking focus this year, we were educated about branded storytelling, shorts distribution and effective short-storytelling—all applicable to features, too. The panelists stay, chat and network with the attendees. By the end of the week, everyone feels like they are friends from film camp. DocShop alone is worth flying to Missoula for.

In the end, though, it’s the impeccable organization that makes Big Sky first-rate. Two weeks before our screening, the roof of the theater that was supposed to play our film collapsed due to snow fall. Big Sky did not waste a minute finding us a replacement that didn’t compromise our screening time or quality. That’s just a small example of the professionalism of the Big Sky team. It was a joy to work with each one of them.

I can’t recommend Big Sky Documentary Film Festival enough. You’ll be inspired by the documentaries they program, you’ll meet your next director of photography, and you’ll learn how to distribute your next film. Ironically, with Big Sky’s unmissable program, I saw very little of the Montana I was excited to revisit. But that’s OK. We’ll be back. MM

Jesse Nesser is the director of Walk With Me: The Trials of Damon J. Keith. Visit the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival website here.