Located on the edge of Zion National Park, the O.C. Tanner Amphitheater is one of DOCUTAH's stunning screening settings

Located on the edge of Zion National Park, the O.C. Tanner Amphitheater is one of DOCUTAH’s stunning screening settings. (Credit: Southern Utah International Documentary Film Festival) View the gallery.

While the big boys — Sundance, Tribeca, Cannes — receive acclaim for breaking new films and bringing out the stars, there are countless film festival gems hidden in small towns around America that deserve more attention from filmmakers and filmgoers.

Whether you’re looking for an alternative venue to premiere your first documentary or a scenic weekend getaway for watching a well-programmed slate, these lesser-known fests embody the passion and innovation of the A-listers, but with a little hometown hospitality.

View the gallery of small-town film festivals »

Population source: 2010 Census.

Trail Dance Film Festival

Photo: ok-duncan.com

Duncan, Oklahoma (Pop. 22,505)
January 27-28, 2012

The spirit of the Wild West and its cowboys is alive in the town of Duncan, home of Trail Dance, an open-genre showcase of more than 90 independent films. Festival-goers experience the vibrant heritage while rocking out to local bands and other live performances that happen in conjunction with the festival.

When to submit: By early August
More info: traildancefilmfestival.com

Big Sky Documentary Film Festival

Photo via bigskyfilmfest.org

Missoula, Montana (Pop. 66,788)
February 17-26, 2012

As one of the largest film events in Montana, Big Sky has become the go-to venue for nonfiction films in the American West. In addition to showcasing contemporary and classics docs, the festival has highlighted the films the Maysles Brothers, Kartemquin Films and Frederick Wiseman in past retrospective programs. There’s also a heavy emphasis on combining cinema with music. Last year, Yo La Tengo provided live musical accompaniment to the documentaries of French filmmaker Jean Painlevé.

When to submit: By early September
More info: bigskyfilmfest.org

The Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival

Photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid

Sebastopol, California (Pop. 7,379)
March 30-April 1, 2012

Rolling hills of vineyards and apple orchards dot the landscape surrounding this West Sonoma County doc-only festival that highlights films about Latino subjects. And, oh yeah, Wine Road, one of the country’s biggest coalition of wineries, is just around the corner. It’s one of the lengthiest festivals on our list, giving you multiple chances to catch a screening, in case you got distracted by a sampling of Pinot.

When to submit: By early September
More info: sebastopolfilmfestival.org

Bare Bones Film Festival

Photo by Thea Deavers

Muskogee, Oklahoma (Pop. 38,310)
April 13-22, 2012

Bare Bones has been plugged as “the Friendliest Film Festival” by the many filmmakers and patrons who return year after year. In Muskogee, visitors get that charming small-town experience with classic car shows, local music performances and a relaxed neighborly vibe. The festival showcases movies with budgets under $1 million, documentaries, music videos and live screenplay readings at the Art Deco style Roxy Theatre.

When to submit: By mid-December
More info: barebonesfilmfestivals.org

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival

Photo by Flickr user tonythemisfit

Champaign, Illinois (Pop. 81,055)
April 25-29, 2012

Roger Ebert’s film festival, originally “Ebert’s Overlooked Festival,” showcases some of the films the celeb critic argues deserve a second chance or didn’t receive attention in the first place. With no awards, no submissions and no competition, this 12-film festival is brief and to the point. Each year a 70mm film and silent film are also shown, both forms Ebert feels are overlooked. The festival is a reminder that great films often need to be sought out.

When to submit: By invitation only
More info: ebertfest.com

Lake Placid Film Forum

Photo by Flickr user ssanyal

Lake Placid, New York (Pop. 2,638)
June 2012

The absence of paparazzi and publicity marks this festival as a place for those truly passionate about the power of film to inspire. Located in Lake Placid, the impressive views of rolling green hills and deep blue waters offer a relaxing getaway from the city. But don’t let the lack of publicity fool you! A wide range of celebrities and film legends are known to make appearances and hold intimate forums for discussing their personal experiences and growth within the film industry. And catch filmmakers of tomorrow in the sub-festival Sleepless in Lake Placid, a 24-hour student filmmaking competition.

When to submit: By May 1
More info: lakeplacidfilmforum.com

Traverse City Film Festival

Photo by flickr user way2go

Traverse City, Michigan (Pop. 14,674)
July 31 – August 5, 2012

Nestled at the tip of the mitten on the gorgeous Traverse City Bay, the quaint cherry-picking and vineyard landscape is reason enough to visit the Traverse City Film Festival. While only eight years old, the festival has made a big name for itself. Michael Moore founded it on a mission “to save one of America’s few indigenous art forms.” In 2011, Traverse ran 156 screenings of docs to a total audience of 128,000. The festival also presents classic movies free of charge on a giant, inflatable outdoor screen overlooking the bay at dusk.

When to submit: By invitation only
More info: traversecityfilmfest.org

Telluride Film Festival

Photo by Pamela Gentile

Telluride, Colorado (Pop. 2,221)
August 31 – September 3, 2012

In the majestic high country of the San Juan Mountains, Telluride’s secluded location is a sanctuary for cinema die-hards. At Telluride, new and old clash perfectly. The festival screenings run the gamut from forgotten silent films with live orchestral performances to incredible independent documentaries. Audiences are also treated to sneak previews of films. This year, guests were surprised with screenings of Frederick Wiseman’s Crazy Horse, Jim Field Smith’s Butter, and Le Grand Amour, Pierre Etaix’s lost masterpiece that had never before screened in North America.

When to submit: By mid-July
More info: telluridefilmfestival.org


Located on the edge of Zion National Park, the O.C. Tanner Amphitheater is one of DOCUTAH's stunning screening settings

Photo: Southern Utah International Documentary Film Festival

St. George/Kanab, Utah (Pop. 77,738)
September 6-15 5-9, 2012

“Come for the films… stay for the scenery… experience inspiration,” says the festival’s program. Southern Utah’s International Documentary Film Festival screens its films in outdoor venues against majestic red rocks between Zion National Park and Grand Canyon National Park. The festival’s close proximity to national parks offers a slew of awesome outdoor activities such as hiking, camping and off-roading. Aside from the impressive views, the festival showcases more than 130 features and short films from professionals and student filmmakers.

When to submit: By early April
More info: docutah.com

Camden International Film Festival

Photo by flickr user baslow (Creative Commons License BY-SA 2.0)

Camden, Maine (Pop. 5,254)
September 27-30, 2012

Cozied up against the mighty Atlantic just as autumn colors explode, the unique New England setting of the Camden International Film Festival is a big part of the festival experience. Films are selected based on their ability to incite discussion about the art form of documentary as a catalyst for societal change, and almost all of the film screenings are followed by Q&A sessions with filmmakers. According to festival participant-director Aaron Schock, “Camden is exactly what you want in a film festival: intimacy, engaged audiences, crisp and original programming, generous hosts, and a great setting.”

When to submit: By mid-July
More info: camdenfilmfest.org

Aspen Filmfest

Photo: aspenfilm.org

Aspen, Colorado (Pop. 6,658)
October 1-7, 2012

Aspen’s Filmfest showcases a range of films, including international documentaries, or as they refer to them, “true stories.” Most of the films at Filmfest are regional debuts, providing a venue for Colorado fans to catch a film they might otherwise not be able to see. Most screenings take place at the beautiful Wheeler Opera House in Aspen. The festival is intimate in scale and offers unique presentations, special events and tributes to distinguished artists and rising talent. Past honorees include such luminaries as Julie Christie, Harrison Ford, Rob Reiner, Michael Douglas, Anjelica Huston, William H. Macy and this year’s rising talent, Crazy Love‘s Anton Yelchin.

When to submit: By early January
More info: aspenfilm.org

Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

Photo by Flickr user cali4beach

Hot Springs, Arkansas (Pop. 39,467)
October 2012

Twenty years ago, the Hot Springs festival founders envisioned turning their town into the documentary capital of the world. Today, The Hot Springs Film Institute remains the only film institute in the United States dedicated solely to the documentary genre. Each year the festival opens with a popcorn-and-wine celebration followed by a slew of performances and workshops. This year included a graffiti art workshop and a burlesque troop performance. Be on the lookout for legendary filmmakers — past HSDFI guests have included Les Blank, Ken Burns, Tippi Hedren, Roger Nygard, Allen Ginsberg and Albert Maysles. All screenings take place at a historic treasure, the Malco Theatre in downtown Hot Springs.

When to submit: By mid-May
More info: think-boxmedia.com

Two more festivals of note take place in towns with populations of just over 100,000, so we couldn’t resist including them in our list…

Cucalorus Film Festival

Wilmington, North Carolina (Pop. 106,476)
November 10-13, 2012

This goofy sounding festival is a product of a goofier sounding filmmaking collective in Wilmington: Twinkle Doon. Since 1994, Cucalorus has been an intimate venue for watching high-profile docs, from Tarnation to Taxi to the Dark Side to the Oscar-winning shorts Freeheld and God of Love. Expect no awards ceremony, because, as the organizers explain on their website, “competition sucks.”

When to submit: Any time
More info: cucalorus.org

True/False Film Fest

Photo via truefalse.org

Columbia, Missouri (Pop. 108,500)
March 1-4, 2012

True/False has been gaining fans in the documentary world for its focus on its filmmakers and festival-goers. The programmers shun the premiere-only rule, pulling winners from Sundance or Toronto, and — shhh! — you might catch some “non-premiere” premieres at a secret screening.

When to submit: By early November
More info: truefalse.org

A Festival Near You?

Here’s the full list…
Trail Dance Film Festival
Big Sky Documentary Film Festival
The Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival
Bare Bones Film Festival
Roger Ebert’s Film Festival
Lake Placid Film Forum
Traverse City Film Festival
Telluride Film Festival
Camden International Film Festival
Aspen Filmfest
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

And two more…
Cucalorus Film Festival
True/False Film Fest

Is there a small-town documentary festival near you that you love? Tell us about it in the comments!

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Emily Thomas is a Fall 2011 intern with POV Digital. She's interned at Esquire magazine and Vice magazine. Currently Emily is finishing her senior year at NYU, where she is double majoring in journalism and social & cultural analysis. She is also a freelance journalist and aspiring documentary filmmaker.Her top five documentaries are:1. Buena Vista Social Club (Wim Wenders)2. Woodstock (Michael Wadleigh)3. Crumb (Terry Zwigoff)4. Dont Look Back (D A Pennebaker)5. Paris is Burning (Jennie Livingston)