June 28, 2016

Activism & Adventure: A Match Made in Mountainfilm

By Jessie Lyn Thompson

Paradise Found

Burrowed deep within the San Juan Mountains of Southwest Colorado, the fervent explorer unearths all the elements necessary for the adventure of a life- time: the abandoned ghost town of Alta; the weathered ruins of the Smuggler- Union and Sheridan silver mines; Bridal Veil Falls, a 365-foot behemoth that feeds the rapid-rich San Miguel river; miles of densely forested single-track for hiking, biking and horseback riding; a first-class winter play place for skiers; and a slew of summer festivals ranging in subject from music and ␣lm to hot air balloons and mushrooms.

Welcome to paradise. Welcome to Telluride.

I first found myself cast under the spell of Telluride in 2009 when filmmaker Tom Shadyac brought an intimate group of students to experience a mind- blowing, face-numbing escapade with heart-soaring highs and perspective shattering lows: Mountainfilm in Telluride. The four-day documentary film festival focuses on socially conscious issues and ideas, personalities, cultures, along with the heart of what it means to celebrate the human experience. The location alone will steal your breath away. Sweeping mountain vistas of rocky red cliff sides, dotted by apple-green aspens and Ponderosa pines, surround the town on three sides of a box canyon valley. Granted, at almost 9,000 feet, this effect may be partially attributed to a lack of oxygen in the thin mountain air.

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett

During my first visit to Telluride, I watched a devastating film called The End of the Line about the collapse of global fisheries, a potentially dire world crisis I had never heard a single word about. I witnessed an awe-inspiring performance by world-class singer Kongar-Ol, who uses Tuvan throat singing - a method of singing completely foreign to me. I met a young cyclist who lost his parents on Mount Everest, but held their spirit alive with his pedal to the metal mentality. I made several lifelong friends with fellow students that I had barely spoke two words to before. I stood beneath the glacier-gushing mist of Bear Creak Falls, the largest waterfall I had seen to date. Needless to say, I had the adventure of a lifetime in ten short days.

Once the spirit of Mountainlm captivates your core, you do whatever you can to find your way back to your Telluride family.’ One year we crammed four people, with ten days of luggage, into a Mustang convertible for an eighteen-hour drive. Another year, my husband and I ran out of gas in the middle of the Utahan wilderness, or what seemed like Mars, at 3:00 a.m. with no cell-phone service. As with life, every hiccup, every obstacle, and every low further enriches the experience, and every high enhances the ride.

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett

Wild Wild West

To no surprise at all, adventure has run wild in the lifeblood of Telluride for well over a hundred years. Telluride, a technical misnomer since the gold ore tellurium does not actually exist in the town, has a rich and often times rocky history. Originally a summer settlement for the Ute Indians, fortune seekers rushed to develop the mining industry in the late 1800s when explorers discovered silver and ores of gold in the forested cliffs above the valley. The arrival of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad in 1890 catapulted the economy into luxury, and the town expanded from wooden shanty cabins to elegant Victorian brick homes. In 1891, local residents L.L. Nunn, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse built the Ames Hydroelectric Generating Plant at the top of Bridal Veil Falls, further advancing the town’s success. In 1889, infamous bank robber Butch Cassidy made his first unsolicited withdrawal from the San Miguel Valley Bank, placing it on the map once again.

The sudden boom brought growing pains to the town as turmoil between union miners and mine owners created tension and unrest. A violent and deadly exchange left three men dead in a shootout. The Colorado Labor Wars dampened the region for many years, but the town held strong and continued to thrive. The population skyrocketed to a peak of 5,000 people until silver prices collapsed and left the town nearly bare by 1930. The town would rebuild itself for many decades before redefining itself with the bane of the mining industry: snow.

Winter Wonderland

In 1972, Telluride struck figurative gold for the second time with the construction of the Telluride Ski Resort. The cliffs surrounding the town offered prime real estate to develop slopes and over the past forty years, Telluride has become one of the most popular places for skiing in the world. In 1978, a free gondola - the first and only of its kind - connected Telluride to the neighboring town of Mountain Village, promoting progress of a ritzy resort reputation. In a counter-culture response, community members founded a free box’ shelving unit on Pine street loaded daily with items up for grabs and perpetuating the town dynamic between five-star accommodations and homegrown hospitality.

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett

Telluride found its source of winter sustenance, but it needed to attract tourism during the summer months as well. The 60s and 70s created a lucrative market for music and film events, and Telluride’s prime location offered a perfect place for creative festivals to flourish. It began with the Telluride Film Festival and the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 1974. The festival scene became an instant success, and more festivals began to take root, including the Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, Shroomfest: the Telluride Mushroom Festival, the Telluride Balloon festival, and the Telluride Jazz Celebration. Today, Telluride is widely known for its admired and thriving summer festivals.

The Little Festival that Could

Taking place over Memorial Day Weekend for the past 35 years, Mountainfilm in Telluride inspires conscious citizens to 'take off the blindfold’ and become aware of contemporary issues facing humanity. From living simply to labeling genetic food, from water wells in Uganda to Tibetan refugees in India, from nuclear power to electric cars, from captive dolphins to endangered snow leopards, Mountainfilm covers every nook and cranny of the human kaleidoscope.

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett

Lito Tejada-Flores, Fitzroy lmmaker, and Bill Kees, a local climber, inagurated the first festival in 1979 by screening a dozen films over three days at the Sheridan Opera House. Expanding to a dozen different venues and close to a hundred films, Mountainfilm now serves as a premier gathering to discuss current environmental, social and humanitarian issues. Festival themes focus on a variety of topics and include a full day symposium, art exhibitions, book-signings and small panels. Population featured a symposium presentation by environmentalist Bill McKibben; Extinction included presentations by National Geographic photographer Steve Winter and artist Chris Jordan; and Climate Solutions showcased an impassioned breakfast talk with activist Tim DeChristopher. The program is ridiculously immersive and well-rounded.

A significant part of that diverse programming stems from the vision of festival director David Holbrooke, who first came to Mountainfilm in 1999 to scope out Telluride for his upcoming nuptials. “What happened there just blew me away. It changed me forever,” said Holbrooke. At a screening of the film Ghengis Blues in the rustically elegant 100-year-old Sheridan Opera House, Holbrooke reminisces about the moment Mountainfilm captured him. After the film, world-renowned Tuvan throat singer Kongar-Ol (the very same that I was privileged to witness in 2009), captivated audience members with a special live performance. “I just had no idea that kind of thing could happen. I didn’t know that I could feel like this is exactly where I’m supposed to be at this moment.”

From there, Holbrooke began submitting and screening his own films at the festival, and in 2008 he stepped into the role of festival director. “My job is to really blow people’s minds. 

I try to find the stories and the storytellers - whether they’re filmmakers or artists or speakers, or poets, or singers or jugglers. I’m trying to put together a program that not only changes the way that people think but the way they live. It’s a pretty high bar.” When choosing the films that bring festival-goers back year after year, Holbrooke searches for an element of heart as well as the capacity to inspire action. “The films I love the most are the ones that move people; they move their hearts and they move their minds, but they also move their hands and feet.”

In light of Blindfold’s theme for this issue, Holbrooke has exclusively revealed the theme for next year’s festival: Wilderness. “Wilderness is so essential to what we do and who we are. It’s that Thoreau belief, that Edward Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams’ belief that in the natural world is the divine. We’re all about encouraging that to be celebrated, protected and preserved.” Natural havens, wild places, and environmental causes have long served as an integral piece of the festival. “What a magical world we live in, and if you’re not moved to do something by all of it, then you probably don’t have a pulse.”

On the subject of adventure and the wild places of the world, Holbrooke emphasizes the vitality of experiencing Telluride outdoors. “One of the things I always tell people who come to the festival is to make sure that you skip a program and go up Bear Creek.

Get off of Main Street and get out of town for a little bit.” This mentality has been a part of Mountainfilm from day one when attendees spent the daylight hours adventuring in the mountains and the evenings watching films. “Telluride is such an outdoor town. Mountainfilm came about, because people wanted to see films about hiking, biking, climbing and skiing. It’s really important to keep track of those roots.” The festival honors those roots with the Adrenaline Program, a local and festival favorite. Extreme out- door sport films push viewers to the edge of their seat and often times right out of it with rowdy and unbridled passion.

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett

The Mountainfilm motto: Celebrating Indomitable Spirit accurately illustrates the tenacity and drive present in the people involved with the festival. “It really represents what we do in a way. People at Mountainfilm don’t give up, they don’t take no for an answer; if they have a vision, they’re going to see it through.” Personalities like Sam Berns (Life According to Sam), a 16-year-old fighting an extremely rare disease called Progeria, horse-whisperer Buck Brannaman (Buck) and Zimbabwean musician Prudence Mabhena (Music By Prudence) carry you on a wave of emotions that inspire human comradely.

Why We “Mountainfilm”

Mountainfilm’s indomitable spirit draws movers and shakers from all over the world – real people making a real difference in issues that matter to them. I’ve had the extraordinary honor of meet- ing several exceptional individuals over the past six years, and for that I am beyond grateful. Several of these outstanding activists were gracious enough to offer a few reflective words from their experiences at the festival. Many of them return each year for new inspiration, old friends and a replenishment of spirit. I asked them to share why they 'Mountainfilm,’ a verb that takes on a very special meaning to any who’ve attended.

Eric Abramson: Filmmaker, The Cove 

“Mountainfilm not only instilled a confidence in me that I could indeed contribute to other people’s films, at the highest level, but also step out from behind that big shadow and bring my own voice as an artist to the community. It would be hard to miss it ever again.” 

Adrian Belic: Filmmaker, Ghengis Blues

“For me, MountainFilm is all that is great about filmmaking and showing films, because it’s about passion, talent and community, and fun even during the most difficult of moments. I Mountain- Film,’ because I work hard and play hard, believing that each of us on this planet have the ability to make the world a better place and have a great adventure in the process of doing what we love. I go to MountainFilm to be around like minded people, to know that I am not alone in my endeavors, and to be inspired to do even more next year. MountainFilm is not as much an event as it is an experience, just like life.”

Suzan Beraza: Filmmaker, Bag It and Uranium Drive-In

“Mountainfilm inspired me to become a social issue documentary filmmaker! I 'Mountainfilm’ to recharge my activist battery.”

Benjamin Skinner: Author and Abolitionist, A Crime So Monstrous

“Mountainfilm is always fuel in my tanks. Yes, the setting is gorgeous, but the people who come are friends for life and such inspiring colleagues. I mean, where else (other than Everest base camp or a Moroccan opium den) can you meet a guy like Aaron Huey?”

Aaron Huey: National Geographic Photojournalist, Honor the Treaties

“As a photojournalist, Mountainlm made me want to be more than just a witness. I think it was what really moved me towards advocacy with the work I was doing on Pine Ridge. That in turn lead to my TED talk and the work I am doing with Honor the Treaties. Mountainfilm is unusual, because it doesn’t really have a VIP zone. The idea makers, the people making great change, they are down at street level and willing to engage in dialogue. It’s a place where I can find, and actually talk to, people who are truly changing the world.”

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett

Celebrating Indomitable Spirit

Mountainfilm’s indomitable spirit draws movers and shakers from bright colored Tibetan prayer flags, an unofficial emblem for the festival, line shop awnings and windowsills throughout the town. Traditionally, the flags hang outside where the wind can carry the prayers to the world as offerings of peace, compassion, strength and wisdom. These well wishes embody the spirit of Mountainfilm, which at its core strives to encourage the betterment of humankind and the pale blue dot we call home.

My then fiancé and I returned home from our first festival amidst the final preparations for our summer wedding. The impact of Mountainfilm wrapped rich and heavy around our thoughts, and we wanted to share that inspiration with the people we held most dear. We decided to gift individual prayer flags as wedding favors to our guests, with a portion of the proceeds supplying food and water to Tibetan refugees. But we couldn’t stop there, and that’s the beauty of Mountainfilm - its snowball effect. We examined the beautiful engagement ring on my finger and realized that the decadent diamond excavated from some far corner of the world no longer felt socially conscious to us. Two weeks before the wedding, we decided on a whim to go on a treasure hunt in search of our own gemstones. Luck favored our endeavors, and we walked away with one of our most precious memories and an aquamarine stone that would become the physical symbol of our marriage.

Suffice to say, text cannot encapsulate the spirit of Mountainfilm in Telluride any more than it can accurately depict the wildly varied emotions of the human experience. It’s a see to believe sort of magic, a pure-burning fuel igniting sedentary passions and catching re to your very foundation. It’s an adventure of the body, a quest of the heart, a journey of the spirit and the voyage of a lifetime.

Telluride activism film festival

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About The Author: Jacqueline Romano

Jacqueline Romano is the Creative Director & Editor of Blindfold Magazine. She feels it is her personal vocation to use her creative skills to raise awareness for people and organizations who are making positive change, both globally and locally.

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