Peter Shelton

Mountainfilm: Coming Into Its Own

Posted in At the Movies, Watch columns by pshelton on June 3, 2011

It’d be wrong to say Mountainfilm has finally grown up. It is 33 years old, after all. My 34 year-old daughter has comported herself as a grownup for at least the last 15 years.

Perhaps better to say Mountainfilm has come into its own.

This is not to say the behavior last weekend was always strictly adult. Eating ice cream with your fingers, for example.

It was funny to watch people dealing (or not) with their frozen confections during Saturday’s Ice Cream Social on a closed-off Colorado Avenue. Dealing because they hadn’t remembered to bring their own bowls and spoons. Mountainfilm had announced early on that this year they were walking the talk – Zero Waste; no single-use plastic anything would be provided. There were cones for people who could bring themselves to forego the chocolate and caramel sauces. For those who couldn’t, there were edible waffle bowls. But without a spoon, these resulted in serial street comedy.

Ice cream on faces. Ice cream held in the palms of hands. Or people got to talking – the major league sport at all festivals – and the dish sogged through and ended up as strawberry sidewalk art.

This all happened in a spirit of great cheer, which was heartening. I had worried a bit that the theme this year, “Awareness Into Action,” would bring people down; that they would find it too demanding or guilt inducing. But that didn’t happen. Maybe it was because the festival began with death and ended with Happy.

All winter Festival Director David Holbrooke had not been shy in admitting that he was having a tough time dealing with his father’s sudden death. He still seemed scattered, if not shattered, right up to the festival’s opening day. And then he was to moderate the tribute to Richard Holbrooke on Saturday morning.

He did a brilliant job, navigating between tears and tales of the Ambassador walking the streets of Telluride in his long underwear. And he had the smarts to include a panel of foreign policy experts (Roger Cohen and David Rohde from the New York Times, and State Department adviser Vali Nasr) who together made it clear just how much Holbrooke’s moxie will be missed.

There were plenty of heavy films, of course. You can’t help but feel the gut punch of mountaintop removal in On Coal River. Or the terrifying ubiquity of plastic flotsam on One Plastic Beach.

But for every wrenching look at what the exploding human population is doing to the planet there were contrasting segues into beauty and humor. Take the Tim DeChristopher interview in Interviews, 50 Cents. The man is facing 10 years in prison, but Alex Chadwick got him to talk about the moments after he was arrested for disrupting a BLM oil and gas lease auction. DeChristopher described the room in which he was interrogated and the two young, calm, rather sympathetic BLM agents who read him his rights. Then there was the mall cop. The BLM’s offices are in a shopping mall in Salt Lake City. And the mall cop practically vibrated with his own sudden power and responsibility. “You-you-you are probably going to be banned for life from the Gateway Mall,” he told DeChristopher, who pantomimed the poor guy’s blustering self-importance. I’ve never heard Alex Chadwick laugh so hard.

Then there was Shakespeare High, an inspired look inside a 90-years-young acting competition among high schools in southern California. Part of the thrill here was watching the movie (and the live performance afterward) with the 12 kids from across the country who were participating in Mountainfilm’s student program. After the show the Mountainfilm kids glommed onto the two high-school actors (they did a high-octane scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and invited them down to their group house on Pacific Street for spaghetti dinner. There is hope!

Even Cold, which won this year’s Charlie Fowler Mountaineering Award, had its heart-warming moments. The opening shot is of ice crystals forming on the inside of a tent at 21,000 feet on Gasherbrum II with the wind raging and the temperature holding at 51 degrees below zero. But just when you think you might freeze to your theater seat, the shooter, a young American named Cory Richards, says in voice over: “What the fuck am I doing here?” The audience melted.

And there were dozens more; the programming this year surpassed all others. There were the Baffin Babes, four funny, sturdy Scandinavian girls who skied and danced and rapped their way across Baffin Island all the way into Telluride’s defenseless heart. (They made me think of the U2 lyric: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”)

There was the “horse whisperer,” Buck, a man with a tragic background who nevertheless gentles huge animals, gets them to read his mind and obey – if only he could heal their owners as efficiently. At the Memorial Day picnic an artist friend of mine said, “I want Buck to train me.”

Buck came a close second or third in the Audience Choice Award voting at the picnic. The winner was Happy, made by a man, Roko Belic, who seemed to embody the title, beaming beneath his headscarf while his two-month old daughter, Viva Paradise, swung in the crook of his arm.

Finally, there was Prudence Mabhena, the wheelchair-bound young woman from Zimbabwe who sang for Telluride last year and came back again. For the finale she sang Bob Marley’s “One Love,” and it was impossible not to stand and sing along with throat-catching abandon. (” . . . one heart/let’s get together and feel all right.”)

In the retelling, it sounds maudlin, like a hippie revival. But it wasn’t like that at all. It was Mountainfilm doing what it does best, bringing out the best, for a weekend at least, in everyone touched by its humane magic.

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