I’ve heard that Montana is a quest of sorts: beautiful in scope, yet full of potential agonies for the uninitiated.

People are drawn here despite bone-chilling winters. Custer met his maker at Little Bighorn and Michael Cimino met his Waterloo here while shooting Heaven’s Gate. Montana is expansive, yet remote and inviting. Like nature, it can surprise you.

The East side of the Big Sky state was my destination. Billings is the largest city in Montana with over 160,000 souls, and they were about to dive into the film festival scene with the first ever Montana International Film Festival (MINT). Inaugural festivals being what they are, I was ready for anything.

MINT’s first schedule featured 55 films from 40 countries, with over $15,000 in cash and in-kind awards available to moviemakers. No small feat for a new kid on the corner, and a harbinger of good things. Add an opening night street party, a flurry of exclusive moviemaker shindigs and panels focusing on women and indigenous moviemakers, and you have a promising entre into the festival world.

Thankfully, the screening venues at MINT are all within walking distance and offer a nice theatrical contrast. From the grandeur of the 111-year-old Babcock Theatre to the indie cinema pub vibe of the Art House Cinema, each theater has its own special aesthetic and take on the viewing experience. As the afternoon settled into evening, I made my way back to the Babcock to watch the opening night film, The Children’s Act, and help celebrate the maiden voyage of MINT.

Following the screening, moviemakers poured out into the street, soaking up local beverages and eats under the light of the Babcock’s vintage marquee. As part of my visit to MINT, I had the privilege of serving on the documentary feature jury, and found myself commiserating with a few fellow jurors—a festival director, a film writer, and a Hollywood producer. After some small talk, our attention turned to karaoke at a legendary downtown dive bar, The Embassy, and without missing a beat, the after-party kicked into gear, with the lot of us belting out the hits with the locals.

In the coming days, I took in Sgt. Stubby: An American Hero, an animated tale of a heroic canine from World War I directed by Richard Lanni that surprised me with its heart and soul; a spirited panel of women moviemakers; and an eye-opening collection of Montana-made shorts that affirmed MINT’s commitment to supporting new and local moviemakers. The Song of Sway Lake (starring Rory Culkin and Elizabeth Peña in her final performance) stood out with its mix of drama and nostalgia as it followed a young man in search of a legendary music record hidden in his grandmother’s summer home. Also of note was the block of international shorts that included the remarkable and timely Dutch short “Tagged,” directed by Martijn Winkler, which effectively explores the destructive depths of social media from the POV of a smartphone.

Among MINT’s first-year award-winners were Human Affairs director Charlie Birns (Best Narrative), Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude’s smartphone origin story General Magic (Best Documentary), and Amrita Pradhan’s We Were Íslands (Best Female Director), a festival favorite. The honor of the closing ceremony, the MINT Spirit Award, was bestowed upon the harrowing doc feature American Relapse—co-directors Pat McGee and Adam Linkenhelt’s visceral dig into the U.S. heroin epidemic and the corrupt underground rehab industry that’s sprung up around it in Southern Florida.

As the energized crowd migrated from the theater to a nearby bar to toast MINT’s success, Executive Director Brian Murnion stood out on the street under the marquee, surveying the hard work that he and his incredible team had brought to fruition. He looked tired, but happy—and ready for whatever comes next. Pulling off your first film festival is no small order. It takes organization, sponsorship, commitment and a singular drive to bend the timbers into shape. MINT is off to an admirable start and shows every indication that it’ll make a name for itself, and give Montana another great festival to call its own. MM

Montana International Film Festival 2018 ran from September 14-16, 2018. Featured image: MovieMaker West Coast Editor-at-Large Greg Hamilton, (L) Oxford Film Festival Executive Director Melanie Addington, (C) and Hammer to Nail Editor-in-Chief Don Lewis (R) pull jury duty for MINT’s inaugural run.