For me personally, Mountainfilm has meant no more cane sugar in my cupboard (since learning about the concentration-camp lifestyle of the Haitian immigrants who labor in the sugar-cane fields of the Dominican Republic, where most of the world’s sugar-cane production is overseen by one cruelly dominant family, The Price of Sugar, 2007); queasiness upon eating non-organic chicken (after seeing the Barbie-doll-breasted factory chickens tortured into existence by food-industry scientists to satisfy their captive consumers’ preference for breast-meat, Food, Inc., 2009); and, once and for all, understanding that it’s largely people like me, shopping at big-box-stores like Wal-Mart, who keep the human slave trade flourishing – in a world with more people in slavery than at any point in history – thanks to the Mountainfilm 2008 presentation by author E. Benjamin Skinner (A Crime So Monstrous).
And let’s not forget that Mountainfilm audiences knew, long before British Petroleum’s ocean-floor oil leak of unparalleled proportions, about the desperate state of the world’s oceans (and the life within them), thanks to the festival’s programming Boulder filmmaker Louis Psihovos’ documentary The Cove (2009), which went on to win a well-deserved Academy Award this year.
Festival Director David Holbrooke says that the year he and staff spend assembling the pieces of this festival is every bit as inspiring as the end result.
How to best sum it up?
“Indomitable spirit” remains the common thread winding through Telluride Mountainfilm 2010, he says.
And “indomitable spirit” is indeed, it turns out, the best way of describing the common ground shared by this year’s 75 films chronicling such at-first-glance unrelated worlds as the American Civil Rights Act-galvanizing Freedom Riders (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., High Country), that racially mixed group of brave, Gandhi-inspired bearers of the principles of nonviolence into the violently segregationist South in the early 1960s, and the mind-bending Dirty Pictures (Friday, 9:15 p.m., Sheridan Opera House and Sunday, 4:30 p.m., Palm), about “the brilliant chemist Alexander Shulgin,” in Holbrooke’s words, who synthesized variations of the drug, Ecstasy (MDMA) while on the job at Dow Chemical. Shulgin could have gone on to become a man who, Holbrooke says, “made millions at Dow, but decided to follow his heart – and experiment on his brain” instead, earning the unwanted moniker of “Godfather of Ecstasy” for his efforts.
“All of this really does in a way come back to indomitable spirit,” Holbrooke muses, “and the sense that these people are going to do things the way they should be done.”
By way of further example, he cites Nico’s Challenge (Friday, 6:30 p.m., Sheridan Opera House and Monday, 11 a.m., Palm), “about the 13-year-old boy” born with just one leg who, with his father, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro.
Holbrooke, a filmmaker himself (Time for a New God, 2004; Hard As Nails, 2007), is especially pleased to be showing Sons of Perdition (Saturday, 9:15 p.m. and Sunday, 12:15 p.m., Sheridan Opera House), a film about the cast-out sons of modern-day fundamentalist Mormons, polygamous members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a repudiated offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), or Mormons.
“Aside from the moral issues,” as Holbrooke pointed out in his essay about Sons of Perdition in the Mountainfilm 2010 program, “polygamy has a simple mathematical flaw: There are not enough females for the males.”
“I tried to do that story,” he says, about the cast-out sons (and their too-often forcibly married mothers and sisters) from the FLDS compounds that pepper the West, and was far enough into his research that a contact called him, one weekend, with a tip: “There’s something big happening this weekend – we’re going to do a rescue” of FLDS women in the Utah desert.
Holbrooke dispatched two cameramen to film the rescue, but called it off when, upon their arrival, they were asked: “Did you bring bulletproof vests?”
At least three of this year’s Mountainfilm special guests are in his personal “pantheon of heroes,” Holbrooke says, including large-scale photographer Chris Jordan, who left off practicing corporate law to instead raise public consciousness through his meticulously constructed photographs chronicling the detritus of American consumption (abstractly beautiful but mind-numbing expanses of diodes, cell-phone chargers and cigarette butts) and is back this year with heartbreaking photos of the tragic results of the plastic bag invasion of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, 1,250 miles northwest of Honolulu.
Jordan, a speaker at Mountainfilm 2006 (and whose photographs were exhibited at the Telluride Gallery of Fine Art) was, Holbrooke says, the first person he contacted upon assuming his job with the festival. Another Holbrooke “hero” is special guest Tim DeChristopher, the penniless University of Utah student whose “bids” for drilling rights in pristine public lands near Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands national parks led to their 2008 Bureau of Land Management auction being declared null and void. DeChristopher, his protest action and his subsequent legal travails are the subject of Telluride filmmakers’ Beth and George Gage’s upcoming film. Rounding out the trio is Rabbi Irwin Kula, head of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership’s think tank (who is also the subject of Holbrooke’s film, Time for a New God, which premiered at Mountainfilm 2004, and will screen again this year (Sunday, 9:30 a.m., High Country).
Of that last one, “It’s a little bit awkward,” Holbrooke says about showing his own film for a second time at the festival now under his direction, “but Irwin, who is one of our judges this year, wasn’t able to come here the first time it showed, and I think people will enjoy meeting him and seeing the film.”
Does Holbrooke have any personal favorites on the program for this year’s Mountainfilm festival?
“That’s like being asked to pick your favorite child,” he demurs.
How about dubbing one of the 75 films being shown “most newsworthy?” That could be Restrepo (Sunday, 9:30 a.m., Sheridan Opera House), the result of a collaboration of photographer Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, best-selling author of The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea.
Restrepo, set in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, considered the most dangerous place in the world for the American soldiers stationed there, won the Grand Prize at Sundance earlier this year.
But Holbrooke remains unwilling to commit – until, finally, the question is polished to his satisfaction: “Which film is most likely to change viewers’ lives?”
“Gasland or Bag It,” he promptly responds.
And it’s no accident that the screenings of both Gasland (Friday 6:45 p.m., Palm and Sunday, 12 p.m., Masons) and Bag It (Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Palm and Sunday, 4 p.m., Nugget) feature appearances by special guest Theo Colborn, the retired zoology professor who established and directed the Wildlife and Contaminants Program at World Wildlife Fund U.S.
After retiring, Colborn went on to found The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, based in Paonia, Colo., a nonprofit dedicated to providing an exchange of objective technical information about endocrine-disrupting chemicals and the subsequent low-exposure hazards for us all.
Colborn is a necessary interview in Gasland, as it chronicles the experiences of director Josh Fox, whose decision to research a natural gas company’s offer of $100,000 for permission to drill on his land led to his discovery of “the stuff of nightmares,” as Holbrooke wrote in this year’s Mountainfilm program. “Pools of toxic waste that kill cattle and vegetation, cats with fur falling out in clumps, and ignitable kitchen faucets. With natural gas exploration booming in the Southwest, including San Miguel County, this film is essential viewing.”
And Colborn contributes an equally necessary interview in Bag It, of which Holbrooke wrote in the program: “Try going a day without plastic. Go ahead. You’d be hard pressed to get out of bed without encountering the substance in one form or another. Plastic is everywhere and infiltrates our lives in unimaginable and alarming ways, according to Suzan Beraza’s documentary, which is getting its first finished screening here in Telluride. What starts as a film about plastic bags evolves into a wholesale investigation into plastic and its effect on our lives, bodies and waterways. Starring Telluride local Jeb Berrier, playing the role of the ‘everyman’ (those of us who know him realize that this role is a stretch), the film travels around the world, from Telluride to Midway Island. As we learn more about how little we know about plastic, one thing becomes certain: The advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character, Ben, in The Graduate—‘One word: Plastics’—was right on.”