Move over winter, it’s Mountainfilm time
TELLURIDE, Colo. — The forecast calls for a terrible day — blustery, cold, rainy — but Saturday morning arrives with a surprise gift: a blue sky marked by a few harmless white tufts. Perfect weather to travel the high mountain roads to Telluride, a steep southwestern Colorado canyon carpeted with tiny, colorful Victorian-era houses. As I drive two hours from my home, the sun glints off new leaves, fresh snow dots slopes, and wildflowers tint the meadows. Eventually, clouds roll in and stage their drama between peaks.
Inspiration is exactly what I am looking for. I am on my way to Mountainfilm, a four-day festival of independent films, talks, art exhibitions, and book signings that takes over Telluride every Memorial Day weekend. Everyone has a ritual that heralds the beginning of summer — a pilgrimage to the shore, the first ice cream cone — and Mountainfilm is becoming mine.
It’s a fitting tradition. The event wakes this small mountain town from its mud-season slumber. Shops reopen, the cobwebs of winter fall away, and residents slather new coats of paint on wind-worn facades. Everything feels fresh after the weight of winter — a good time for a festival whose lofty tagline reads “celebrating indomitable spirit.” Mountainfilm’s 75 or so movies document mountains and the people who love them, as well as social and environmental causes. As a result, the people who show up — about 4,000 activists, athletes, artists, scholars and film buffs — seem powered by optimism. It would be hard for even the crustiest cynic to remain impervious to the buoyant atmosphere.
“It’s a special weekend — just a lot of smart, kind people,” says a young local athlete in a trucker hat I meet in the gondola on my way into town. “This is definitely my favorite event of the year.”
When I arrive, crowds of ruddy-cheeked people, clad in crisp Gore-Tex and bright down jackets, mingle in the streets. In front of a backdrop of cliffs, peaks, and the silver filaments of waterfalls, they clutch mugs of coffee and discuss the latest film while lining up for the next. Here, waiting in line is a social occasion. Unlike other festivals, Mountainfilm rolls out no red carpets. Celebrities and authors like Cheryl Strayed and Jared Diamond rub elbows with film aficionados of all stripes. In line, I meet Lynn Hill, one of the most famous rock climbers in history; editors from Outside magazine; a local elite running coach; and a lawyer from Google. None of them are too cool or busy to chat.
That afternoon, I see “Mending the Line,” a beautifully shot film about an American soldier who survived storming the beaches of Normandy in World War II. While rolling through France on a tank, he spotted a river and an unattended fishing pole with a freshly caught salmon. He dreamed of returning to fish the watercourse ever since. The film chronicles the 90-year-old veteran’s return in 2013 with his wife of 70-plus years, but the story is as much about the journey as the healing power of wilderness and marriage. After the film, sniffles waft about the room as the lights rise. To a standing ovation, the young filmmakers walk onto the stage with a special guest: the veteran himself, a white-haired, big-smiling fellow in a military uniform, holding his wife’s hand.
“Thank you so much for sharing your story,” says one woman in the back. “Just look around and pretty much everyone here is in tears.”
This hardly seems unusual. Mountainfilm’s selections tend to be big-hearted. In the high school auditorium, I watch “Emptying the Skies” about a group of Italian bird lovers who painstakingly pluck endangered songbirds from hunters’ traps. In “The Last Season,” a Cambodian refugee and a Vietnam veteran bond over the pain of war and hunting prized mushrooms in Oregon forests. And I watch “E-Team,” which follows a special-ops force from Human Rights Watch who brave war zones to document human-rights abuses — often before reporters or intelligence agencies arrive.
But the moments between movies, which are held at historic theaters about town, are, in many ways, just as striking as the films themselves. That Saturday night, it rains and snows, but in the morning, everything glows with the promise of renewal. Like the mountains, saturated with new life, my head brims with ideas — seeds that will sustain me well past the long days of summer.