The Babcock Theatre came to life Friday for the inaugural Montana International Film Festival.
Festival-goers, filmmakers, photographers and members of the media mingled in the street outside the theater, which has been closed to traffic, before the opening night film began.
MINT executive director Brian Murnion estimated half of the seats in the theater were sold before opening night, and by the time the theater darkened, few seats remained. Volunteers in white shirts swarmed about the building, and despite being “a little overwhelmed,” Murnion said he was feeling amazing about the event.
“It goes so fast that I’m not going to be able to remember anything,” he said. “I am going to blink and it’s going to be over.”
For Murnion, this event was his baby. He planted the seeds and can now reflect on a year and a half of work and team-building to bring more than 50 films, more than 60 filmmakers, and many more out-of-town guests from across the U.S. and Canada to Billings.
“It’s amazing to meet them face-to-face and just feel that synergy from them,” Murnion said. “I was quickly reminded that is why we are doing this. We get to bring these people into our community and just have a moment where we are all just one big family. It feels really good.”
The festival opened with a film making its Montana debut, “The Children Act,” based on Ian McEwan’s 2014 novel that derived its title from child welfare legislation passed in the United Kingdom. The flick stars Emma Thompson as Fiona Maye, a British High Court judge who must rule on a life-changing legal case concerning the survival of a teenage Jehovah’s Witness who is refusing medical treatment.
Festival organizers have amassed a selection of films for the three-day festival that span narrative, documentary and feature categories, as well as several short films. More than 55 films from around the world will be shown through Sunday at the Babcock, Art House Cinema and Pub, and 2905 Montana Avenue.
Sam Randall, co-owner of Terakedis Fine Art and Jewlery, said excitement for the festival was building throughout the day. On Friday, the downtown art gallery acted as the box office for the festival before it moved to the Babcock for opening night.
“It’s outside the realm of the typical Montana experience. It just felt fresh,” she said.
Matt Blakeslee, who founded the independent movie theater Art House Cinema and Pub in 2013, said the festival is a testimonial to his belief that “people are passionate about independent film and having an alternative experience.”
Art House will screen films from the festival Saturday and Sunday, and also is hosting the festival at the Babcock. Blakeslee and his team were handed the keys to the downtown theater, which is owned by the city, in July and are acting as the interim managers while they negotiate the final details of the lease.
“Our dream and our desire is that we would reopen the Babcock in November,” said Blakeslee, who plans to bring first-run movies to the historic building seven days a week.
Before opening the Babcock to the public for MINT, festival organizers and Art House asked for help “deep cleaning” the theater. Blakeslee estimates 30 people from the community showed up Sept. 8 to give the aging facility some TLC.
“Some of those chairs had truly not been scrubbed or cleaned in a really, really long time,” he said.
As they stood under the marquee Friday night, Kim and Don Olson, who had been at the helm of the Babcock since 2008 when the city obtained the property, said they couldn’t be happier. “We are feeling very positive about this,” Kim said. “This is what it is supposed to be. This is what we wanted for it.”
For Missoula-based filmmaker Marshall Granger, the event was a homecoming. He was raised in Billings and moved to Missoula to attended college. He’s returned to Billings to screen a few films at Art House, and seeing the Babcock in operation for a three-day film festival was inspiring.
“I wanted something like this to exist in some form growing up here for sure,” Granger said. His short film, “All Mankind,” will debut Saturday at the Babcock with a handful of other short films from across the U.S.
“My mom hasn’t even seen the full film,” Granger said.
In addition to films, two film panel discussions will take place Saturday. A panel on Indigenous Filmmakers, beginning at 2 p.m. at the Babcock Theatre, will feature filmmaker Shaandin Tome, a Diné tribe member; the Aleut actress, director, choreographer and playwright Jane Lind; Ponca/Ojibwe film and TV writer and producer Migizi Pensoneau; Blackfeet, Chippewa, and 3 Affiliated Tribes’ Maya Ditloff; and Oglala Sioux tribe member Willi White, moderated by Crow/Northern Cheyenne artist Ben Pease.
The Women in Film Panel will follow at 3:30 p.m., featuring Tome and Amrita Pradhan, who have films showing at the festival, as well as film and music video producer Maryann Tanedo and Oxford Film Festival programmer Melanie Addington. Bozeman- and Brooklyn-based actor, writer and producer Jenna Ciralli will also take part in the panel, moderated by Montana’s Film Commissioner Allison Whitmer.
Sunday’s selections include a film, “The Pushouts,” a documentary focused on the life of Dr. Victor Rios, a former gang member and felon who turned his life around with help from a teacher. Film director Dawn Valdez and Tumbleweed executive director Erika Willis will be on hand for a Q&A. A portion of ticket sales will be donated to Tumbleweed, which provides services to homeless youth in Billings.
The event closes Sunday with “Rodents of Unusual Size,” a documentary about hunters organizing to control rodent issues in Louisiana’s wetlands. The film shows at 2905 Montana Ave. at 5:15 p.m.
Several films are competing for awards, including the MINT Spirit Award, Best Female Director, Best Narrative Feature, Best Narrative Short Film, Best Documentary Feature Film, Best Documentary Short Film and the Made In Montana award.
A schedule of all films is available online. Passes and individual tickets for films can be purchased at mintfilmfestival.org/tickets or in person starting at 10:30 a.m. Saturday and noon Sunday at the Babcock Theatre, 2812 Second Ave. N, at Art House Cinema and Pub, 109 N. 30th St., or at 2905 Montana Ave.