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New film 'Jonnie' focuses on life and career of pioneering Billings bull rider

Montana PBS

The story of a Billings bull rider who broke down barriers for women in rodeo roughstock events will be the subject of a new documentary coming to Montana PBS.

The story of a Billings bull rider who broke down barriers for women in rodeo roughstock events will be the subject of a new documentary coming to Montana PBS.

Yellowstone Public Radio’s Jackie Coffin chatted with the filmmakers, Sabrina Lee and Scott Sterling, about the story of Jonnie Jonckowski.

Jackie Coffin: So where did this idea come from, and when did the project itself start?

Sabrina Lee: I have always been interested in Montana stories, and for a while, I've been thinking about doing a project about women's rodeo in Montana. I had the good fortune to have lunch with Barb Van Cleve, the Western photographer, and she said, 'Oh, you can't make a film about women's rodeo in Montana without speaking with Jonnie Jonckowski.'

So I called [Jonckowski] and that would have been in November of last year—2022. And I thought it was just going to be a research call to get some background information about the sport and that maybe she would be a contributor to the film, but after speaking with her for an hour and a half, I realized this woman is a legend and she warrants her own film.

And I was so excited about it that I immediately picked up the phone and called Scott Sterling, whom I've had the pleasure of working with before on a couple of projects, and said, I think this would just be such a fantastic Montana PBS film. And Scott, what was your, what was your response to that, I guess?

Scott Sterling: I completely agreed right off the bat, because this is exactly the kind of story that we're always looking for that tell the story about Montanans. Jonnie Jonckowski is a Billings gal. She's been there pretty much her whole life.

My goal is to tell the stories that wouldn't get told otherwise. We have an incredible network of local news and radio in this state, but nothing besides Montana PBS that can really get in depth and tell these kind of documentaries like that. So it really fit exactly what we're looking for and she just has such a compelling story. You know, it's not just the fact that she is a woman who rides bulls, it's so much more than that, so much deeper than that.

Jackie Coffin: Sabrina, why don't you tell me a little bit about how rare it is to find a female bull rider, even today, you know, her story of when she was actively riding seems to be some years ago, but it's not something we see very often, or is it?

Sabrina Lee: You know, it's interesting that the needle hasn't really moved with women's bull riding, but that, for me, does not take away from what Jonnie did because actually for us a very interesting element to the story wasn't just that she was wildly successful in her own career, it's that she leveraged that success.

She was sort of determined to make the sport accessible and safer for other women who are pursuing it and there was a period of time after she had sort of retired as a professional bull rider, she spent years lobbying so that women could ride at roughstock events that historically, like for decades and decades, had not allowed women.

For instance, she lobbied for women to ride at Pendleton, Oregon, at Cheyenne, Wyoming—Cheyenne Frontier Days. It's funny, just this morning I was thinking about an interesting anecdote from there when they were allowed to ride in Pendleton, Oregon after having not been there for five decades. I guess there was a sign next to the bowl, you know, you're going back to enter where the shoots are that said 'No women beyond this point' and the women as they were passing by to either mount their bulls or their broncs would tap the sign as like a sign of defiance, you know, we were here and we have a right to be here.

Jackie Coffin: So tell me about your Kickstarter campaign, what you're trying to raise and when you're hoping to bring this production to a viewing audience.

Scott Sterling: So being non commercial, we rely on donations to be able to do these projects. We can't do it like the commercial fundraising format. In other words, you can't have investors or people that have editorial control. You know, we want to remain independent and be able to tell a story without influence.

So that means that we have to fund these all via donations. And we do grants, we do all kinds of things like that. We're doing a Kickstarter campaign currently. Our goal is $25,000, which is a fraction of what this film will actually cost. The end budget is about $200,000 or so and that all, again, comes from donations— there's no tax dollars per se or things like that that go into this.

The goal is to finish it sometime between this fall and the spring of [2025]. We're not quite sure, a lot of that depends on the fundraising and how that goes.

Jackie Coffin: Okay, and as well as the Kickstarter if anyone hears this and they're like 'I want to call PBS and just mail them a check' or something like that, is that an option as well?

Scott Sterling: Absolutely. We will be very grateful for any kind of contributions towards this amazing story.

Jackie Coffin: Well, thank you both so much for talking with me today and sharing your vision, your process, and what you hope to do.

More information about the upcoming MontanaPBS documentary 'Jonnie' can be found at