At Aspen Shortsfest, a portrait of mountain town life with Indigenous teens
Telluride-shot ‘Chuj Boys of Summer,’ screening at virtual festival starting Tuesday
What: ‘Chuj Boys of Summer’ at Aspen Shortsfest
Where: Eventive via aspenfilm.org
When: Program One; Streaming Tuesday to Sunday
How Much: $15/single program; $60/Five Program Pass; $150/Full Virtual Pass; $250/VIP Pass; $45/student pass
More info: A livestream Q&A with filmmakers from Program One will run Tuesday at 6 p.m.
Set and shot in Telluride, the short film “Chuj Boys of Summer” is an intimate portrait of a friendship among young immigrants in Colorado ski country.
It stars high school students Yak Alux and Pedro Lucas, each playing a version of himself — Yakin and Petu — as a young Chuj immigrant working in the resort town. The Chuj are a Mayan people from the mountains in what is now Guatemala. A sizable portion of Chuj immigrants have settled in the mountains of Colorado and in Telluride, where director Max Walker-Silverman estimated the Chuj community numbers about 200.
The 16-minute narrative short is among the 80 short films screening at the virtual Aspen Shortsfest, which begins online Tuesday. Shot on film rather than digital, “Chuj Boys of Summer” focuses on the titular boys as one plans to return home and the other eyes putting down roots in the mountains. They speak Chuj throughout the film, as the Yakin character does not yet know English nor Spanish, but is eager to find his place in the community.
“Things here may look unfamiliar, they may seem far away,” Petu tells him in the film, “but make no mistake: The air up here is your air. The sun up here is your sun. And any place that needs you is a place you’re free to be.”
We see Yakin getting a glimpse of the local school, having his interest piqued and then attempting to enroll despite the language barrier. He and his friends talk about girls and tease each other, they hike into the mountains and wade in lakes, they shoot hoops and play video games — it’s breezy and free teenage summer stuff, playing out against the complexities of making a home in a foreign land.
Filmed in and around Telluride in September 2019, the San Juan Mountains look their majestic late-summer best for the film, which allows viewers to spend time with mountain town locals who are often unseen by tourists.
“People see it as a white place, when actually it’s just segregated,” Walker-Silverman said.
As the boys tramp around in the high country looking at old and abandoned mining equipment, they fantasize about what it would have been like to be here back in the 19th century: “If we’d been here a long time ago, we’d have been rich, happy men,” one of the boys says.
Billed as “a true story starring those who lived it,” the film aims to bring a heightened level of emotional reality into the story through the actors’ lived experience. This approach to filmic storytelling has been used to stunning effect in Chloe Zhao’s recent “Nomadland,” a Best Picture Oscar nominee, and her previous feature “The Rider.”
In “Chuj Boys of Summer,” the actors brought an additional layer of agency to their roles, as the director and most crew did not speak Chuj. They entered scenes with ideas of how they would play out based on the screenplay, but then could deviate from the screenplay, improvise and let them play out naturally.
In March, the film won the Support the Shorts Award at SXSW. The jury’s citation called it “unspeakably powerful” and wrote that Walker-Silverman and co-writer Ordoñez Ixwalanhkej Mendoza “know too much about the world to provide convenient answers to the film’s complicated questions, so they instead focus on the little gestures that define their characters’ lives.”
In the fall, Walker-Silverman shot his first feature film, a quiet mountain-set romance titled “So This Is What the Songs Are All About,” starring Wes Studi and Dale Dickey.
Meanwhile, “Chuj Boys of Summer” hasn’t yet gotten a community screening in Telluride (the coronavirus pandemic hit before it was finished) and the Aspen festival screening marks its first platform in Colorado. It is on the bill for Telluride Mountainfilm in May, and Walker-Silverman is hopeful the town can watch it together sometime soon. After the festival run, the “Chuj” team plans to put it online for free.
“I simply want it to be seen by as many people as possible,” Walker-Silverman said.
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The literary nonprofit Aspen Words is restarting its writers-in-residence program that had been on pause during the pandemic. Residents include “Call Me By Your Name” author André Aciman. Public events begin June 15.