The reason, I think, is that Mountainfilm has over the years established itself as a local brand that flatters us all. Mountainfilm is both appropriately scaled to our small town and it celebrates precisely our passions for mountaineering, environmental protection and social justice. In some definitive sense, Telluride, the community, is the source of Mountainfilm, the concept. The festival speaks to who we imagine ourselves to be.
But how often has the event failed to measure up to its aspirations? In all honesty, too often – although to make this observation is not to denigrate the hard work that went into festivals past. Like most things Telluride, Mountainfilm has been a struggle, a thirty-plus year struggle, if for no other reason than that it’s really difficult to build and stage a festival. It’s no secret that a few years back there was some question as to whether Mountainfilm, beset by challenges, would survive.
But Mountainfilm’s sponsors and board stepped up and more than saved the floundering festival. And now, with the talented team of Executive Director Peter Kenworthy and Festival Director David Holbrooke at the helm, and an incredibly dedicated staff, Mountainfilm this year really became, at least for me, what it always had the potential to be.
I should qualify that by noting that no two persons experience a festival the same way. Others, I’m sure, feel that Mountainfilm has often lived up to its mission and purpose. We all catch and miss different events, and we bring differing interests, tastes and opinions. And yet I heard from a number of others who attended this year’s Mountainfilm that it was the best ever.
Was it the weather? Well, maybe – the Mountainfilm weekend is usually rainy or snowy or windy or all three, springtime in the Rockies, but this year the weekend served up the glorious first days of summer instead. Beyond that, there were actual crowds on main street, or at least what passed for crowds, after a long and desolate off-season. Boosted by last-minute pass sales, our local economy got a welcome jolt that may just have been bigger than in years past. But most importantly, by far, is that Holbrooke has found his groove as a programmer.
Under Rick Silverman’s directorship, Mountainfilm first began to expand its horizons far beyond its genesis as a festival showcasing films about climbing and skiing, mountains and mountaineering – a powerful step for Silverman to take, and one that still energizes the festival today.
This year, the festival was completely comfortable in its skin as a documentary festival, which it fundamentally is. I always imagined that Mountainfilm might become the world’s pre-eminent documentary festival, and this year if felt like that’s a real possibility.
I saw only seven of the programs, but every single film I saw was really good, worthy of being programmed at a highly selective festival. At the Memorial Day picnic in Town Park, where the award winners are announced, I did not have the sensation as in so many previous years that I’d somehow managed to miss all the great movies. This was largely, I suspect, because the films on the program were overall of a high caliber, and there were fewer of them, meaning that they were repeated more frequently on the schedule, allowing buzz to build. By way of an example I saw Music By Prudence on Monday morning after hearing the raves from folks who saw it earlier. And then, there was the sort of extraordinary moment you can only get at a festival: The appearance of the star of the film, Prudence, a severely disabled young woman, who filled the Palm with her powerful voice, on what was her first journey outside Zimbabwe. Mountainfilm not only programmed the movie about Prudence – it also raised the funds to bring her to America! And our own local part-time resident Peter Yarrow joined her to sing “We Shall Overcome,” a near-literal description of the journey taken by Prudence herself, she who has overcome obstacles that should by any reckoning have been insurmountable, making her a personification of Mountainfilm’s unofficial mission statement: celebrating indomitable spirit.
And then she closed with an a cappella “Amazing Grace.”
And that film didn’t even win the festival’s “Moving Mountains” award – that went to Fish Out of Water, which I didn’t even see, and which only testifies to the incredible strength of the program.
The other films and programs that I saw included the powerful anti-war film Restrepo, incorporating almost-unbelievably tense footage of hapless American soldiers under fire in Afghanistan; the grueling Last Train Home, offering a window into the harsh rise of China as an economic power; Sons of Perdition, about the extraordinarily high cost paid by the children of religious fundamentalists who happen to live in our own backyard, in Colorado City, Utah; and Gasland, in which the ravages of our insatiable thirst for energy is brought very close to home.
And there was Maya Lin’s gorgeous show at the Telluride Gallery of Fine Art, too, which is still on display. A part-time Ridgway resident, Lin’s gift for extracting profound meanings from simple and beautiful forms is always inspiring.
Inspiration, indeed, is Mountainfilm’s baseline. In one way or another the festival programs all inspire action, whether it’s to overcome personal obstacles, like Prudence has, or to summit a peak, or to reduce our use of plastic, as the homegrown festival hit Bag It demands, or to support a cause, or to make a film and produce our own documentary report of what’s happening out there. This is the impulse behind the documentary after all, after all, to venture outside our comfort zone and report back what we find.
The subject of a Mountainfilm program may be dark and frightening, but the spirit is indeed to Move Mountains, not to despair, but to make a film, to educate and illuminate and to inspire action.
There may be no greater testament to the festival's purpose and its achievement than the fact that so many local artists were on this year's program, possibly having been inspired by Mountainfilm themselves. Bag It, directed by our own Suzan Beraza and starring our own Jeb Berrier, shared the festival prize for Audience Favorite with I Am, directed by part-time local Tom Shadyac (a highly accomplished Hollywood director, who pointedly brought a different sort of film here). Locals Ben Knight and Travis Rummel's new film Eastern Rises also earned accolades.
From Telluride, Mountainfilm agitates, challenges and inspires. The idea, it's own metaphor, has come to fruition.