Rebranded Aspen Mountain Film Festival dives deep into stories, journeys and issues at Wheeler Opera House |

Rebranded Aspen Mountain Film Festival dives deep into stories, journeys and issues at Wheeler Opera House

Catherine Lutz
Special to The Aspen Times

IF YOU GO. . .

What: Aspen Mountain Film Festival

Where: Wheeler Opera House and elsewhere

When: Wednesday, Aug. 20 through Sunday, Aug. 25

How much: $20/single ticket; various pass options

Tickets: Wheeler box office;

More info: Full schedule at

Along with classical music, dance, theater and art of every stripe, film festivals are part of the regular cultural diet of the Roaring Fork Valley. But when the house lights dim at the Wheeler Opera House on Wednesday for the kickoff evening of the Aspen Mountain Film Festival, it’ll be the start of an altogether unique film-centered celebration of stories, adventure and meaningful action.

Distance hiker and National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Jennifer Pharr Davis will not only emcee the opening Evening of Adventure shorts film program (which includes a film she’s the subject of, “Is This the Top?”), but also lead a free trail run the next day. Watching “Detroit Hives,” local bee enthusiasts can learn about how beekeeping is being used to rebuild an inner-city community, then talk to experts from the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies about the challenges and issues facing local bee populations. And for legions of local Led Zeppelin fans, the opportunity to see Akio Sakurai, aka Mr. Jimmy (as in Page), in an intimate acoustic teaser at D’Angelico Guitars will give more meaning to the feature documentary of the same name Thursday evening and his full concert at the Belly Up on Sunday night.

“What we’re doing to set this festival apart from others is to really put you into the community, with the option of a 5K race or an environmental hike — and make (this series of events that relate to the films) free to the community,” said Wheeler Opera House executive director Gena Buhler. (Single tickets and three pass options for the films, including a lunchtime series that includes lunch, are available through the Wheeler box office.)

This year, Buhler and her team are producing the full festival, which follows in the tradition of Telluride Mountainfilm but has been rebranded in its 11th year in Aspen. For the past decade, Telluride Mountainfilm’s traveling arm scouted and approved the films for Aspen’s August event, while the Wheeler handled everything else operationally. The Wheeler and Mountainfilm split in January when their contract expired, and the Wheeler opted to make the film festival a 100% locally produced experience.

And while, like other “mountain” film festivals, the Aspen Mountain Film Festival often veers away from mountainous settings or themes, Buhler explained that the films her team sought out and chose for this festival “tie into what makes life in Aspen so unique.”

“We were trying to find real stories about real people,” she added. “You can see beautiful landscapes or someone skiing a killer line anywhere, but you don’t know the person behind the ski mask. We were looking for what’s the journey the person is going through.”

The story of longtime Woody Creek resident Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500, is being told in the film “Qualified.” The topic of mental health, which resonates particularly deeply in Aspen and other mountain towns, is explored in “Ernie & Joe,” a portrait of two Texas police officers’ quest to change the way police respond to mental health calls. Following the screening is a panel on community policing, including members of San Antonio Police Department’s Mental Health Unit, Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor and a local mental health counselor.

A work-in-progress version of “Rios to Rivers,” by Aspenite Weston Boyles about his nonprofit connecting youth from imperiled river basins in the U.S. and South America, will screen in the shorts program Wednesday. Boyles will be on hand to discuss the film.

In the past few years, the Wheeler has gradually built up its programming of off-screen events — making a traditionally indoor event an “outside inside” event, in Buhler’s words, a nod to Aspen’s traditionally active population and typically pleasant late-August weather.

The Aspen Mountain Film Festival also presents a “huge opportunity,” according to Buhler, to be among the first to see the films and meet the subjects and filmmakers. Three world premieres and four Colorado premieres are part of the lineup, in addition to several films that won’t be seen on the big screen again except at other festivals. And this year’s festival hosts 29 special guests for the 35 films.

All of this relates to the festival theme, “Deep Dive,” which speaks to the deeper focus of some of the films and “peeling back the onion a little bit more” through both the films and related events.

So while ocean-loving Aspenites, who flock to beaches and surf breaks every offseason, will be attracted to the stunning visuals of “Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike deGruy,” this appropriately named film honoring the late filmmaker’s career also provokes deep questions about humans’ degradation of the oceans. They can probe this and other conservation questions with deGruy’s widow and partner filmmaker, Mimi deGruy, during a discussion and guided walk through ACES’s Hallam Lake Preserve.

“It either causes you to act in that moment, or when things come up in life you can reflect upon the information the film gave,” Buhler said. “That’s what documentary film is all about: telling true stories of real people doing things, and talking about it in a real sense.”