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42nd Filmfest includes tribute to founder

Festival opens Tuesday at the Wheeler

Ellen Kohner (Hunt) photographed in her office in September 1985. (Aspen Historical Society/Aspen Times Collection)

 

The 42nd annual Aspen Filmfest includes some of the year’s most anticipated independent films, thought-provoking documentaries, foreign language titles and a spotlight on a local filmmaker, carrying on the vision of its founder, Ellen Kohner Hunt, who died early this year.

The festival program itself, which opens Tuesday night with the Jessica Chastain-led drama “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” is a tribute to the founder. To further honor Hunt’s memory, Aspen Film also is producing “Ellenfest” on Thursday evening, gathering friends at the Wheeler Opera House and showing an hour-long compilation of tributes and film clips.

“My goal was never that people need to like what we showed,” Hunt says in the film. “I just didn’t want anyone to be hopelessly bored.”



With recollections from friends and filmmakers, the film recounts how Hunt started Aspen Filmfest with a group of committed volunteers — all women — and grew it into a launchpad for independent filmmakers with Filmfest, later creating an incubator for new and marginalized voices at Aspen Shortsfest.

“I would like to see Aspen be a place for hosting short subject filmmaker, to be the place that supports and identifies new talent up and coming in the motion picture world,” she says in the film.




Documentarian Aviva Slesin recalls how Filmfest nurtured her and shares a short comedy she made with a young Bill Murray — co-starring an array of costumed parrots — in Filmfest’s founding year.

“Ellen was at the core of this sisterhood,” Slesin recalled. “She was warm, she was generous, she loved and was very knowledgeable about film and she was easy to laugh with.”

Local figures in the tribute include Aspen Film stalwarts Gail Holstein, Judy Royer, Joyce Semple, Steve Alldredge and former Isis Theatre owner Dominic Linza.

 

IF YOU GO …

IF YOU GO …

What: Aspen Filmfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House; Isis Theatre; Crystal Theatre

When: Through Sunday, Sept. 26

How much: $20-25/single tickets; $300/full pass

Tickets: aspenshowtix.com

More info: Proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test required at Isis and Wheeler; Crystal Theatre requires patrons to be fully vaccinated; full lineup online at aspnfilm.org

*

What: Ellenfest

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Thursday, Sept. 23

How much: $9.23/program only; $125-150/reception and program

Tickets: aspenshowtix.com

More info: The reception will begin at 4 p.m. followed by the program at 5 p.m.

With Hunt at the helm, the organization resisted commercialization or growing too much — staying focused on locals even as festivals like Sundance and Telluride expanded to become international events.

“We wanted then, and still do want, to be an intimate experience,” Hunt says in the film.

Filmmakers include directors like Edgar Boyles, Bill Plympton and Adam Collis, interspersed with some of Hunt’s favorite shorts of years past. Locally based Hollywood figures, including Robert Wagner and Jill St. John, also make appearances.

Hunt herself sums up her volunteer work on Filmfest as an act of gratitude for a community that she loved and that supported her and her family.

“I felt that I wanted to give something back,” she says. “That sounds really corny, but it’s just the way it was. … There were a lot of filmmakers whose work was not being seen, and I thought it would be wonderful to have a film festival where we could promote and support the work of independent filmmakers and expand the horizons of our somewhat insular community.”

The six-day, all in-person 2021 festival includes films like the Kristen Stewart-led Princess Diana biopic “Spencer,” which will screen Friday night at the Wheeler, the “Sopranos” prequel “The Many Saints of Newark,” director Antoine Fuqua’s new thriller “The Guilty” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and the locally produced documentary “Flying Boat” from Aspen documentarian Dirk Braun.

The Isis Theatre also will host daily documentary matinees through Saturday, including “Chasing Childhood” on the phenomenon of helicopter parenting, “My Name is Pauli Murray” from the directing duo that made “RBG,” and the Leonard Bernstein doc “Bernstein’s Wall.”

Foreign titles include Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi’s acclaimed “A Hero,” Mia Hansen-Love’s “Bergman Island” and Joachim Trier’s “The Worst Person in the World” — all three already darlings of the festival circuit since their premieres at Cannes.

This Filmfest marks the first all in-person festival for Aspen Film since Academy Screenings in early 2020. Due to the pandemic, last year’s Filmfest was hosted both virtually and in-person, with distanced screenings hosted at the Isis Theatre. Aspen Film canceled last winter’s Academy Screenings series and hosted the 2020 and 2021 Aspen Shortsfest virtually.


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