I wasn’t expecting much from Covellite International Film Festival, seeing that it was the festival’s first year.

Until that point, our film Second Chance had been in more than 20 festivals, from Beverly Hills to Jaipur, India. Since our film is a standard crime drama with no name actors, we had been excluded from the big-hitter festivals and, instead, found a niche in the smaller festival circuit.

Our experience with lesser-known festivals had been a mixed bag, some with a terrific show of prestige and some which were so embarrassing that they made me genuinely question my role as a filmmaker. Despite my jaded cynicism, my producer, Dustin Williams, convinced me into going because it was an excuse to visit Montana. I booked my ticket and the next thing I know I was on a plane flying across the heartland.

Arriving in Butte, I was immediately taken by the haunting beauty of the city. Large brick buildings, art deco-style hotels, old cigarette advertisements—it was like I was in the back lot of Paramount studios. The city was a perfect mixture of East Coast urbanity and mythic Americana, and even though it initially seemed like a ghost town, Butte’s energy was very palpable. I’ve felt a similar rush in places like the Hudson Valley in New York, or Fåro, Sweden: I was in love with Butte at first sight.

At the Covellite Theater, we were greeted by programming director Brian Boyd and executive director Don Andrews. We had only spoken through Facebook, but there was an immediate connection when we started talking, different than the scripted greetings I was used to receiving from other festival directors. We were introduced to various locals who were volunteering at the festival: pouring beer, setting up banners and shuttling people from the Salt Lake City airport. We also met some of the artists who came from all over the country to participate in the burgeoning Butte art and culture scene.

Phil, a local mental health advocate, gives a ride to the Covellite International Film Festival’s opening night party

Phil, a local mental health advocate, gives a ride to the Covellite International Film Festival’s opening night party

The rest of the weekend was a drunken menagerie of film screenings, deep philosophical talks about moviemaking with kindred spirits, afterparties at the Silver Dollar Saloon that segued into late-night hang-outs at locals’ houses (and vicious hangovers amidst the beautiful mountain ranges).

From start to finish, my trip to CIFF was the best film festival experience I’ve ever had. From people watching at the Motel 6, to our delightful conversation with Phil, a local mental health advocate who was kind enough to give us a ride to the opening night party (and who actually came to our screening!), CIFF was everything a film festival should be. I could have easily skipped on this opportunity and finished up our long festival run with a sour taste in my mouth, but I’m glad I went. The end of my trip was bittersweet. I was sad to leave—and had a terrible hangover—but I left feeling that I had been a part of something greater than myself. MM

Carlos Cardona is a filmmaker based in Brooklyn. He is currently working on his next feature, Last Day.

For more information about Covellite International Film Festival, visit its website here. Photographs by Carlos Cardona.