Mountainfilm

In this still from the film “Public Trust,” which won this year's Audience Choice award, a canoe glides through the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. (Courtesy photo)

Winning any of the awards at the Mountainfilm festival is a huge honor for participating filmmakers, and with over 100 documentary shorts and feature films routinely bringing viewers to tears of laughter, outrage and sheer poignancy, the competition is stiff. This year, with the festival’s transition to an online platform, festival passholders were able to tune in from all over the world, with potential for more viewers than ever to weigh in on the coveted Audience Choice Award.

Though festival organizers managed a fair amount of uncertainty in transitioning the festival to an online platform, it was not in vain. This year, a record-breaking 9,500-plus attendees participated in the virtual festival.

“Even though it was a scary undertaking at times, we were scrappy and came up with the best solution we could in the six or seven weeks we had to prepare. In the beginning, we had no platform, no idea how to build one, and we couldn’t help but wonder, ‘If we build it, will they come?’” explained festival director Suzan Beraza.

Indeed: They came, they saw, they voted. This year, by popular vote, the audience chose the film “Public Trust,” directed by David Byars, to receive the 2020 Audience Choice Award. The film, a stirring portrait of three formidable battles over public lands — in Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument, Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness — paints the story of interests pitted against each other: extractive industries and conservation advocates. The film goes on to reveal how those interests have gained and lost ground — ground that belongs to every American citizen — during the previous and current administrations.

“This award means so much for the film and the subject of public lands,” said Byars. “I hope that people understand and feel some kinship with our public lands. They have a long and complicated history, but here we are, and there are myriad and vast inexorable mechanisms that stand to profit from harvesting those lands to the detriment of humanity. When we lose individual battles, those lands disappear into a legal and physical maw from which there is no return, so we cannot afford to lose.”

Meanwhile, “Us Kids,” directed by Kim Synder, claimed the Best Documentary Feature award, with a story chronicling the transformation of students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School into political activists following the tragic 2018 school shooting that claimed 17 lives.

“This film was by far the best of the show,” said a Best Documentary Feature jury member in a recent news release. “It took me on an emotional ride with those incredible kids. It had a strong point of view and ended with a grounded version of what hope looks like.”

The festival honored six additional films with awards: the Charlie Fowler Best Adventure Film went to “By Hand;” the Women in Film award went to “Welcome Strangers;” the Norman Vaughan Indomitable Spirit award went to “Second Sight;” Moving Mountains Award went to “Mossville: When Great Trees Fall;” the Student Choice award went to “Current Sea;” and the Vimeo Staff Pick award went to “Originate.”

If you didn’t get a chance to see all of the films on your Mountainfilm festival tick list, fear not. The viewing options for each film differ, with some still making the festival rounds, while others are available to view on various streaming platforms. Mountainfilm Executive Director Sage Martin recommends checking the websites for individual films to find out how to watch ones you may have missed.

A good film, like any good story, holds a lot of power, and that power can be harnessed perhaps now more than ever as the world moves towards creating a new normal post-pandemic.

“The power of documentary film is that it takes us out of our bubble and transports us into someone else's story,” Martin said. “We can witness our brothers and sisters around the world summit dangerous peaks, overcome debilitating challenges and be inspired to create change in our world. That's the indomitable spirit that we've been celebrating since the beginning. And now, in our 42nd year, that unshakable, invincible spirit is something we all have to call on as we react and adjust to a world that's been tipped on its side. Our hope is each viewer found a film that spoke to them — a film that reminded them that they're stronger and more adaptable than they think, a film that inspired them to make the world a better place or a film that made them feel that together we can get through this.”