Black Hills Film Festival soon

The Black Hills Film Festival returns this year with a new date.

Unlike previous years when the festival was held in the spring, this year’s film festival comes in February, a move Chris VanNess, film festival executive director, said was to bring in more people.

“Everyone we talked to said this would be better for them because there’s less going on this time of year,” VanNess said.

The film festival runs from Feb. 20-25 (no films will be shown Feb. 24) with showings in Hill City on Feb. 22-23 at the Hill City High School theater. Other locations include Rapid City with showings at the Journey Museum Theatre and Elks Theatre on Feb. 20-21, Hot Springs at the Historic Hot Springs Theatre Feb. 21-23 and Spearfish — a new location — on Feb. 25 at  Matthews Opera House.

Matthews Opera House was selected as a venue two years ago as a trial run, VanNess said, but this year they’re showing four films at the venue.

In total this year, there are 26 films being shown over the stretch of the festival, with many being shown in multiple locations. Films range from short narratives to feature-length films, from documentaries to dark, gritty films.

The festival will show eight films with ties to South Dakota, films the festival calls “Reel South Dakota Stories.”

The theme this year, VanNess said, is the “art of film.”

“There are even more artistic forms involved in making movies than mentioned…such as makeup, hair styling, graphic artists and animators — and even our awards were created by local bronze artists,” the film program reads. “The film industry supports careers in so many creative areas.”

The Black Hills Film Festival supports and encourages artists in South Dakota, the program continues, in all disciplines.

The artwork featured on the cover of the program is from Black Hills artist Sarah Rodgers, who will also be featured in a documentary “Spark, Sarah Rodgers,” which will be shown in Hill City Feb. 23 during a film session from 3:25 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Other South Dakota connected films includes “Warrior Woman” — which is a documentary that chronicles Lakota activist and community organizer Madonna Thunder Hawk and her daughter Marcy — and “The Mustang” — which tells the story of a violent convict who is given the chance to participate in a rehabilitation therapy program involving the training of wild horses. Thomas Smittle, who appears in the film as Tom, lives west of Custer and went through the program described in the film.

“The Mustang” premiered at the renowned Sundance Film Festival in Utah in 2019.

Another movie with connection to Hill City is “When Life Gives you Lemmon,” a student film which tells the story of sculpture artist John Lopez in his hometown of Lemmon. Lopez created the “Iron Star” sculpture found on Main Street in Hill City.

“South Dakota has a nice film environment,” VanNess said.

In addition to the films being screened, there will also be a seminar at the Hill City High School Theater done by Ryan Hall, a Black Hills based producer, on ultra-low budget films. The session is free and open to the public.

Films being made by South Dakota filmmakers are not multi-million dollar endeavors, VanNess said, but the films are doing “quite well.”

New this year to film festival goers is an app. The film festival tried to roll out an app five years ago; however, VanNess said it came out too soon.

“Now is the right time,” she added. The app is available for free in both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store.

The app makes it a lot easier for people to navigate films, VanNess said. A survey (which is required for the film festival to do for grants) will be administered through the app. Instead of filling out paper surveys like in years past, now people can use the app to fill out the survey. 

Perhaps one of the best aspects of the film festival, VanNess said, is that it brings together filmmakers from across the country. Filmmakers mingle at the receptions and after parties, which the public has access to if they purchase a full festival pass.

“At the parties, you’ll have filmmakers from New York City and Los Angeles networking with filmmakers based in the Black Hills,” VanNess said. “The public loves that because they can see how the (filmmaking) process is works.”


What: Black Hills Film Festival

Where: Rapid City at the Journey Museum Theatre and Elks Theatre from Feb. 20-21; Hill City at the Hill City High School Theater Feb. 22-23; Hot Springs at the Historic Hot Springs Theatre Feb. 21-23; Spearfish at the Matthews Opera House Feb. 25

How much: Full festival pass $50 (good at all venues and for all films and seminars; visit to purchase full festival pass); session ticket $10 (Includes all movies at any one session. Cannot be purchased ahead of time and must be purchased at the venue).

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