Mountainfilm in Telluride, a 34-year-old festival focused on the outdoors, global politics and the forces trying to better the world, is not meant for exclusivity. Quite the opposite. The festival sprawls through the town of Telluride with social events, gallery openings and free screenings in Telluride Town Park that draw thousands of people. And Mountainfilm is designed to extend well beyond Telluride’s tight canyon walls; the idea is to get people talking about the issues raised and then go and get involved in them.
MountainSummit, the Aspen-based sister to Mountainfilm in Telluride, is moving toward that goal of spreading the word about caring for the environment, freedom of expression, and inspiring individuals. MountainSummit can’t yet match Mountainfilm’s history; the Aspen event, entering its fifth year, is a few decades behind its older sister. But it is quickly achieving one of its primary ideals: It is getting people talking.
“I always want the conversation to continue,” Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler Opera House, which presents MountainSummit in partnership with Mountainfilm, said. “That’s why we do another documentary series in the winter. I don’t like the idea of doing a festival, ending it on Sunday after the last screening, and having everyone go away forgetting what they saw. The films should start the conversation; the conversation should continue in real time in the world all around them.”
Last year, Slaton saw confirmation of the sort of buzz he wanted to create. After a few years of steady increase in attendance, ticket sales soared. Slaton attributes that not to expanded advertising, and certainly not to sponsorship — Slaton is adamant that MountainSummit steer clear of big corporate sponsors, to maintain the purity of its message — but to chatter on the street.
Last year “is when word of mouth took over from any other form of advertising,” he said. “People weren’t only excited but excited to bring other people in, totally blind, saying, ‘You’ve got to see this.’”
This year’s MountainSummit runs Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 22-25, and Slaton believes the program of films continues the conversation from years past. “It’s about, What are these things going on in the world and how do they impact me and how do I make a difference with them?” he said. “Here we are in this perfect little world, but what can I do to improve the rest of the world?”
One film that has captured Slaton’s attention is “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” which was not screened in Telluride in May. (The film will be shown on Saturday, Aug. 24, with co-director Maxim Pozdorovkin in attendance for a Q&A session.) The documentary unfolds last year’s story of three young Russian women who were put on trial for doing a punk-inspired performance art piece in Moscow’s iconic Cathedral of Christ the Savior. The film raises issues that distinctly affect modern-day Russia, including the overwhelming power of President Vladimir Putin. But Slaton wants Aspenites to see the broader picture.
“The media has portrayed this as a local issue,” he said. “But ‘Pussy Riot,’ the more you peel back the layers on this particular onion, you see it’s about human rights issues, and things we need to be speaking about here. It’s women’s rights, freedom of speech.”
Another film that Slaton expects to have a lasting impact on its audience is “Xmas Without China” (showing Friday, Aug, 23). Director Alicia Dwyer’s documentary follows Tom Xia, a Chinese-born Californian troubled by America’s perception of China, as he persuades a family in his neighborhood to abandon all Chinese-made products in the run-up to Christmas. (Xia will be in attendance at the screening.) The film touches on 21st-century multi-culturalism and the fears of China’s ascent as a global force, but Slaton thinks the most powerful take-home lesson is about the things we consume and how we consume them.
“This film might make you stop and think about consumerism, and what role you play in that,” he said.
While one overall purpose of MountainSummit might be to unite audiences in an awareness and understanding of global issues, one film is virtually certain to divide people. Robert Stone’s “Pandora’s Promise” argues that nuclear energy is the best hope for addressing environmental issues and the world’s growing energy needs. Among the people making that argument are environmental leaders including Michael Shellenberger, who in 2008 was named by Time magazine as a Hero of the Environment.
Two films in the MountainSummit program focus on young people who are bound to leave audiences inspired. “Life According to Sam” is about Sam Berns, a Massachusetts teenager who has progeria, a rare disease that drastically accelerates the aging process. Despite having the appearance of an old man, and the likelihood of a short life, Berns brings wisdom and perspective to a life that he fills with ordinary teenage pursuits. (Berns and his family will participate in a Q&A via Skype.) “Maindentrip” is about a Netherlands teenager, Laura Dekker, who fights for the right to become the youngest to sail solo around the world.
Keeping with the original Mountainfilm theme of global exploration are a pair of films, “The Summit” and “High and Hallowed: Everest 1963.” The first, by Nick Ryan, documents the events of August 2008 on K2, one of the deadliest days of mountaineering ever. “High and Hallowed” goes back to an earlier era of high-altitude adventure, looking at the first American team to summit the world’s highest mountain, and the unusual route they took to the top.
A central part of the ongoing MountainSummit dialogue has been Tom Shadyac, the comedy-film director (“Ace Venture: Pet Detective,” “Bruce Almighty”) who screened his documentary “I Am,” about the sources of human happiness, at MountainSummit. Shadyac, a regular attendee, will talk about his latest film project and screen a surprise film. He will also present a “Tomversation” about his recent book, “Life’s Operating Manual,” at Steve’s Guitars in Carbondale.
Rounding out the MountainSummit program are “Manhunt,” a documentary thriller which presents the true story behind the CIA’s hunt for and capture of Osama bin-Laden; and “God Loves Uganda,” about fundamentalist American Christian groups influencing anti-homosexual policies in Africa.