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Mountainfilm Explores the Indomitable Spirit This Weekend in Telluride, Colorado

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Mountainfilm in Telluride's opening night filmmakers dinner venue

If you attend Mountainfilm in Telluride, Colorado, these three things are true: you will see great films, you will personally be changed by the ideas presented, and you will have a lot of fun, whether that’s drinking a dirty chai with film illuminati and accomplished adventurers at the Steaming Bean or hiking up the Jud Wiebe trail for a splendid view of the picturesque, box-canyon town. Last year’s short list for the Academy Awards Documentary category contained several films that had screened at Mountainfilm—a testament to the festival’s timely and spot-on selection process—and many of the filmmakers and people featured in the films spend their Memorial Day weekends presenting their films and attending morning panel discussions, photo exhibits, and book-signing events—along with the 3,500 attendees. This year’s Moving Mountains Symposium (Friday, 5/23) and overarching theme will explore the idea of wilderness, both in homage to the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act and in salute to what wilderness means to each of us as individuals.

Now in its 35th year, the festival, whose motto is “celebrating the indomitable spirit,” is not lacking in surprises. We asked festival director David Holbrooke to give us the scoop.

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Mountainfilm festival director David Holbrooke spotting people with questions in the audience at the symposium on wilderness.

Adventure: When you approach curating a new year of the Mountainfilm experience, what’s your primary mission?

David Holbrooke: What we are trying to do is really turn people on. We are trying to get people excited about what they see, and the best way to do that is to find great films, and then try to create an experience around those films that resonates. So taking a film like DamNation and bring in the characters and filmmakers. The films don’t all have to have a learning moment. They don’t all have to have impact. But they all have to be good. And that’s really important to us … that we are finding films that are well-made, well-crafted, well-thoughtout—all of those things.

There are films in the festival this year that wouldn’t be a natural fit at Mountainfilm, like the film Born to Fly, which is about the choreographer Liz Streb, who lives in Brooklyn. But what she does is totally rad and she’s very much in line with what we are doing and who we want at Mountainfilm. So we say, this is a great film, and we get Elizabeth here, and Elizabeth is so excited to come, and that means a lot to me, because someone like that isn’t exactly “from our world,” but she actually is. For her to be here and taking it all in is wonderful, and very exciting.

For us, it is really about the experience.

A: How would you definite the scope of the film selections?

DH: I am looking for films that are living a life that’s out of the mainstream, out of step with the rest of society, and making a statement. Jim Whittaker said it well when he said, “If you’re not standing on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.” And I love that. He was the first American to summit Everest, an iconic guy, and I think there’s something really powerful in that statement.

And the people in the films agree with that statement, whether it’s Born to Fly or Seeds of Time about the future of food…which is really looking at problems we have and being engaged with it and finding actions about that behavior and say, OK this is something we can do. I love that commitment. Our guests are committed to something, which is pretty profound. And that is what Mountainfilm is about. Wade Davis is a great example…he said “Mountainfilm didn’t change my life, it forged my life.” We have an impact on people. This is not another film festival. And we hope at the end of the weekend that our audience is changed, that our filmmakers are changed, that our guests are changed in a really fundamental way.

A: It’s a big year for wilderness, what with the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. How is the Moving Mountains Symposium going to break it down and approach this huge topic? 

We are looking at wilderness both we a capitol “W” as with how it was defined for the Wilderness Act in 1964 and how it’s going in the world today. And we are also looking at wilderness with a lowercase “w,” and how we personally connect with wilderness and what it means to in each of us. And being in Colorado, in Telluride, we have all sorts of access to being away from streets, being away from cars, and it doesn’t take much here to get out and be alone. And that’s really amazing. Wilderness is an essential part of us. But then it’s also understanding people who have spent a lot more time invested in this issue, that I have and than we have. We have Jared Diamond and Cheryl Strayed, people who have devoted their careers to preserve, to understand. It’s primeval. It’s such a fundamental part of who we are. And as we become increasingly “civilized,” we move further and further away from something that is ingrained in our DNA. And that’s scary.

A: We continue to look to iconic wilderness visionaries such as Edward Abbey, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau for guidance and inspiration. Who are today’s wilderness visionaries? 

DH: I think we have some of them here. Lynx Vilden, who has a film Living Wild in the festival this year. Tim DeChristopher, who will be here again this year, and he has a very contemporary take on wilderness and the way we are living and what should be done. And I love Sylvia Earle, she is a very powerful lady and ocean advocate. We hope this will be an experience where people can think about wilderness again and understand not only this seminole act but what’s happening to our wilderness. And what is happening—and we see this in the U.S.—it’s being severely encroached upon by a lot of extraction industries, whether it’s oil or mining. That is one of the big conflicts of our world right now. We are playing a really staggering film called Virunga, about Virunga National Park in the Congo, it’s really well done. They found oil in the bottom of the lake in Virunga, and that’s problematic. There are rare mountain gorillas there that are in trouble.

That is a conflict that is happening everywhere. It’s happening in Utah. It’s happening in Colorado. And some areas are designated wilderness, and that’s wonderful, but there are other lands that need to be preserved. We are dealing with this in Colorado. Unlike Utah, Colorado doesn’t say “open for business,” but what open for business means is go a head and level our hills, level our mountains, fill up our streams with the residue. Luckily in Colorado we are not at that point … but we have 50,000 active natural gas wells in the state of Colorado with more going up, that’s kind of incredible. That is an issue that we address in a festival film that I actually produced called Dear Governor Hickenlooper, and it’s based on a film that we screened last year call Dear Governor Cuomo about the fight to keep a moratorium on tracking in the state of New York, and that’s hotly contested and Cuomo is in a hard position. We unfortunately do not have that moratorium here in Colorado. The state is becoming a pincushion.

The line that is always quoted from the Wilderness Act is “untrammeled by man.” That means a bunch of things, but we are trammeling a lot of this country in a lot of ways. And once it’s trammeled, it’s really hard to turn back. When you look at this issue, you at it in a variety of different ways. It’s really important to look at it in a big “W” and little “w” kind of way. And with tracking, there is a wilderness underneath. It’s not what we consider a traditional “wilderness,” of course, but there is a whole ecosystem going on beneath our feet that we are stirring the hell outta…and without any real sense of what that means and what it’s doing. So the Dear Governor Hickenlooper film will hopefully try and impact this issue that is so problematic.

A: How does the wilderness theme appear in this year’s film selections? How is it stretched?

DH: It’s amazing how many films are about wilderness in its traditional sense … DamNation, Dear Governor Hickenlooper, Virugna, we have a tremendous Wilderness Shorts program. There are lots of films like Born to Fly, Mending the Line, Who Owns Water, Mission Blue, the story of Sylvia Earle, certainly addresses wilderness questions. It’s looking for good films, films that we think are important. We even have a surfing film called The Fortune Wild, it’s a surf film made in the style of Wes Anderson, of The Grand Budapest Hotel and The Royal Tenenbaums, and it’s clearly an homage to him. These are surfers who go camp out in cold weather and are finding whatever waves they can, and it’s really fun. It’s so clever.

For us it’s finding films that are really worthwhile. We like if they obviously relate to our theme, but it’s more do they belong at Mountainfilm, and that’s always a tricky question. For a film like Alive Inside, and that’s the film about Alzheimer’s patients unlocked by music, and it’s just really well done. Lucy Walker’s new film is called The Lion’s Mouth Opens, that film is really quite something and it’s about this woman who is finding out if she has Huntington’s disease, which is a wicked mix of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, so you lose your brain and your body.  Lucy is a filmmaker who we adore and she’s shown work here before, and this one is also another testament of our motto, which is “celebrating the indomitable spirit.”  And while it’s a mouthful, it’s also a real nice measure of things we ought to be doing. We see people who are up against all kinds of odds and they don’t give up. They have that indomitable sensibility, like Mariana Polka, the main character in that film, and it’s really powerful to us. So this film doesn’t take place in the mountains and it doesn’t have climbing or skiing it, but it’s relevant to us because the indomitability is something that runs rampant through our festival in a really wonderful way.

A: What are some of the surprises in store for this year? We heard Dean Potter may be up to something?

DH: Yes, Dean Potter emailed me a while back and said could we do a live event at Mountainfilm. And I said great, do you want to speak? And he said, “No, I was thinking of a live aerial event.” What does that mean? So we got on the phone and said, “I think I could jump out of a plane or helicopter and wing-suit fly over the town of Telluride.” I thought, that would be a first … let’s see what we can do. So if whether permits, we’re going to do this. It’s in the program, but we will be doing it depending on which way the wind is blowing. He will basically go from one end of town and basically land at the other end of town. So exciting.

A: Can you tell us about your Sherpas photo exhibit?

DH: Photographer Aaron Huey, who has been a friend of the festival for a long, long time, and he said, “Look I have these photos that Sherpas have taken of themselves, would you be interested in exhibiting them?” And we said, “That’s cool.” We have done a lot of different photo exhibits, but we have never done anything like this. So Aaron collected the work while reporting for National Geographic. We committed to it way before the avalanche, then the avalanche happened, the biggest single day of loss of life on the mountain, and it obviously changed the dynamic on Everest.

We have several people at the festival who weren’t going to be here because they were supposed to be on Everest, but their trips were cut short. I’ve been getting emails from all kinds of people. Guide Dave Hahn will be coming, and we’ve never been able to have him. Filmmaker Renan Ozturk, who was working on film from the Sherpa perspective, and Dave Morton, who was working on Into Thin Air. There will be a coffee talk, called “Nepal and the Money Trail.”  We’re going to play High Tension, which is the Sender film about the Ueli Steck, Simone Moro brawl last year, which was almost the precursor to everything that happened this year. And so we are hoping to look at this…the Sherpas are essential to level of life on the mountain and are doing valuable work. Where should this conversation be held? At Mountainfilm. We’ll have Conrad Anker, Aaron Huey, Norbu Tenzing Norgay, and then we have a bunch of other people. So we’ll have four panelists, but you could easily swap out four audience members for those panelists. Dave Hahn, Renan Ozturk, Wade Davis will be there.

Mountains and mountain culture are very much at the core of who we are at Mountainfilm, that doesn’t mean that we don’t stretch to Born to Fly or Alive Inside, and those are not traditional Mountainfilm films, but we felt like they are great films, we could get the characters and filmmakers here to bring richer and deeper context here, so that’s what we want, but the mountain culture of George Mallory and any other number of people, is very important to us, and always will be.