The most significant difference between the summer blockbuster movies whose season has just passed, and the smaller-scale films that come to the screen, beginning Tuesday night, at Aspen Filmfest, might not be the spectacle of special effects in the former, the absence of big-name stars in the latter, or the vast budget gap that separates the two. What seems to distinguish the two sorts of movies is the status of the main characters: In one, the protagonist is a towering figure bestowed with oversized capabilities; in the other, the central figures are not so perfectly equipped — and are more human by comparison.
“The classic epic and the modern superhero tale all cheat — they give the central character superhuman power,” George Eldred, the program director of Aspen Film, noted. “At Filmfest, none of these characters have superhuman powers.”
Not only do they lack X-ray vision and magnificent suits of armor, but most of them are handicapped in a way — by poverty, ethnicity, isolation or the enormity of the challenge they have decided to take on. The 35th annual Aspen Filmfest, which runs through Sunday with programs at the Isis Theater (Tuesday night through Thursday) and Paepcke Auditorium (Friday through Sunday), is marked by the underdog — characters coming out of hardship, struggling against the odds, and determined to effect some kind of triumph.
The truth of the expression — everybody loves an underdog — might come from the fact that most people see themselves as the underdog in some way or another. But for filmmakers, what seems appealing about these tales is that audience members tend to be at their most fragile and self-reflective when they are faced with difficult obstacles. Witnessing a character like the orphan Harry Potter, or the undersized boy from “Rudy” who yearns to play football for Notre Dame, taps into the moments when we are likely to be at our most emotionally receptive.
“You sense the vulnerability in these people,” Laura Thielen, Aspen Film’s artistic director, said. “And then you get the celebration of change, the resilience of the spirit.”
Filmfest opens Tuesday night with a special preview screening of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.” The narrative film is based on the story of Nelson Mandela, the South African freedom fighter who took on the country’s entrenched system of apartheid, served 27 years in prison for his efforts, and went on to serve a five-year term as president, earning the title of “father of the nation.”
Additional underdog stories abound at Filmfest and take on a variety of forms: the socially awkward teenagers who want to make their historic mark as bird-watchers; the boy from a Laotian farming village seeking to prove he was not born as an evil spirit; the singer who overcomes a bullying atmosphere; the immigrant to the U.S. who wants to give visibility and validity to American roots music that dwells far outside the commercial mainstream.
Possibly the most improbable tale of all is a true one. The documentary “Linsanity” tells of Jeremy Lin, the Harvard-educated Chinese-American who not only made it to the NBA, but over a two-week stretch in February 2012 pushed himself from being a bench-warmer into legitimate stardom.
“The guy is crazy talented,” Eldred said. “But he’s an Asian-American. There are these race blinders that keep people from going beyond what they expect to see.”
“This Ain’t No Mouse Music!” focuses on German-born Chris Strachwitz, who founded the Arhoolie record label in the hopes of giving exposure to Cajun music, the Mexican-based norteño style, and old acoustic blues. In the documentary, by Chris Simon and Maureen Gosling, Strachwitz positions himself as a defender of purer forms of music against the music industry machine that manufactures meaningless pop idols.
“He’s an outsider on so many levels,” Thielen said. “He’s a refugee. And where does he go? The South, of all places. The musics he represents are outside the mainstream. They’re soulful, rooted artists and he says, ‘You have to listen to this. It’s important.’ He creates a visibility for them. And he’s obsessive.”
Another music documentary, “Muscle Shoals,” tells of the recording industry that sprung up in a most unlikely spot, in a rural town in northern Alabama. But the town of Muscle Shoals, thanks mostly to FAME Recording Studio, has seen a long line of stars, including Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones Aretha Franklin and the Allman Brothers Band, come in to make an unexpected chapter of music history.
“The Rocket,” a fictional tale set in rural Laos, focuses on a boy who is suspected, by his own family no less, of being an evil spirit. He strives to prove his goodness, eventually succeeding in explosive fashion.
“That film got me because it’s a child, and a child in a very uncertain environment,” Thielen said. “But he’s very unsullied in that heart/emotional level. He believes. It’s like a fable, to face the situations he faces, and always figuring out how to triumph. And he’s propelled by a deep love for his family. He’s driven by something greater.”
“Reaching for the Moon,” an English-language film by Brazilian director Bruno Baretto, examines the romantic and professional life of the American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who overcomes painful shyness to become a Pulitzer Prize-winner. The American indie “A Birder’s Guide to Everything” rounds up a group of social outsiders — a trio of high school teens who focus their outsider energy on bird-watching. “One Chance” is based on the story of a British boy who, despite an overwhelming lack of support, becomes an opera star through the TV show, “Britain’s Got Talent.”
For Thielen and Eldred, the movies selected for Aspen Filmfest stand out not just because of the underdog quests, but because of the spirit in which the characters face their challenges. The stories tend not to be grim-faced struggles, but instances of people taking on obstacles because of a passion in them.
“The expressions you see in ‘Mouse Music’ and ‘Linsanity’ — when they are doing what they love, there’s an inner glow that comes out with a gleeful expression,” Eldred said. “People may have outward goals they seem to be striving for. But the fuel is the love of what they do, the passion for the purpose. They’re not dragged along — they’re driven to do this.”
Aspen Filmfest 2013 runs Tuesday night through Sunday, with screenings of American and English features, documentaries and foreign language films. Nine guest filmmakers are expected to be in attendance for Q&A sessions following the screenings.
For a complete schedule, go to aspenfilm.org.