Mountainfilm delivers powerful documentaries, platforms underrepresented perspectives
Telluride has been hosting Mountainfilm, a film festival celebrating indomitable spirit, since 1979. I arrived from Montrose on Friday morning and scored an impromptu interview on the gondola from downtown to Mountain Village with the nonprofit’s executive director Sage Martin. She really set the bar high for my own expectations as a first time attendee.
Sage Martin: “Really our mission is to inspire people to create a better world, so we’re hoping to galvanize our audiences to be inspired. There’s a lot of challenges in our world right now and this can be the inspiration people need to get involved.”
Mountainfilm delivered. The weekend was jam-packed with world premieres of powerful new documentaries, rousing presentations in the Minds Moving Mountains series, and fascinating conversations with a diverse lineup of filmmakers, athletes, and activists.
My favorite film won this year’s audience award. The Holly, directed by Julian Rubinstein, based on his book published last year and now available in paperback, chronicles eight years of investigations into the subculture of so-called “invisible” Denver. The story centers on an activist facing life in prison. At his own peace rally, Terrance Roberts shot a gang member and possible police informant. Roberts and Rubinstein received standing ovations at all three screenings of The Holly, including Friday’s premier at the Sheridan Opera House.
Director Rachel Lears screened a newly finished recut of her potent political picture To the End, which debuted at Sundance earlier this year. Built around the perspectives of women of color fighting for a Green New Deal, the film profiles prominent activists including Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth organization working to combat climate change, and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute. Behind the scenes footage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders makes it clear why young environmentalists are so taken by their heartfelt, full-throated support for saving the planet.
The Territory, directed by Alex Pritz, offers unprecedented access in Brazil to an indigenous tribe defending their land from invaders emboldened by the election of Jair Bolsanaro. A young tribal leader realizes drone cameras and handheld video equipment can help them tell their own story. They use technology to document the destruction of the jungle they call home and ward off violent attacks from usurpers. The climate implications of their efforts are unmistakable.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Mountainfilm is the platform the festival gives to heroes and heroines from underrepresented backgrounds. Spirit of the Peaks, co-directed by filmmaker Tim Kressin and Lakota tribal member and pro skier Connor Ryan, is a thought-provoking and gorgeous film. It tracks Ryan’s efforts to connect young Utes with the mountains their ancestors roamed, as he shreds with a unique degree of reverence for the lands under his skis.
Asian-American surfer Gerry Lopez is legendary for his prowess gliding through the barrels of massive waves. But the same guy whose penchant for stealing waves from other surfers got him into bloody fistfights on the beach was committed to meditation and yoga. Director Stacy Peralta’s film The Yin and Yang of Gerry Lopez provided a perfect vibe for one of the festival’s free outdoor screenings in Telluride’s iconic Town Park. Mountainfilm director Sage Martin.
Sage Martin: “Half of all Mountainfilm programming is free and open to the public. It’s something that’s really important to us. Watching films in the park in a sleeping bag, you know hanging out, out there in beautiful evenings, it’s just magical. We love that part of Mountainfilm. It’s really special.”
Another film that left an impression was Surf Nation, directed by Jessica Q Chen and Jeremiah Bogert, focused on two young Chinese surfers Alex and Lolo who are part of a new effort by the government to make China competitive in the Olympics. The film offers a peek into the culture clash of rebellious and free-spirited athletes training in a regimented and conformist program.
Rick Ridgeway told heart-warming stories from his memoir Life Lived Wild: Adventures at the Edge of the Map. Attendees were mesmerized by a slideshow that included the first American ascent of K2 and other historic feats. Environmental photographer James Balog, whose Extreme Ice Survey was the focus of the film Chasing Ice a decade ago, shared profound images from his massive new book The Human Element. The festival’s guest director Jeff Orlowski-Yang shared the Transfer Warehouse stage with women from production companies Exposure Labs and Doc Society for a discussion on climate stories we need to be telling now. The passion and pursuit of social impact was palpable at the panel and festival-wide.
Executive director Sage Martin told me she panicked in 2020 when the pandemic started and they moved to a fully online platform, but tons of film fans tuned in and kept the festival going.
Sage Martin: “We sold 9500 passes and it was amazing and we were like oh my god! Now we have the physical festival full and then the online after, and what it does is alleviate a lot of that FOMO that happens during Mountainfilm where people hear buzz about a film and it’s too late or it’s full and they can’t get in. Now they can watch it all after the festival. It’s a great opportunity to catch anything you missed and for people all over the world to tune in and check out Mountainfilm. It’s also a great access issue for someone who can’t afford to come to Telluride or can’t afford a pass.”
All of the films I mentioned, and all the films I missed, are available now until June 7 with an after the festival ticket at mountainfilm.org.
CORRECTION: Please note, it has come to KVNF's attention that certain films are not available as part of the Mountainfilm After the Fest ticket. Please double check their website before making a purchase.