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MountainSummit keeps climbing in popularity

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times

The conventional wisdom in the festival world is that you allow five years to see if an event takes hold — if it connects with an audience, if the locations work.

MountainSummit appears to be ahead of schedule. Last summer, in its fourth outing, the festival of documentaries and discussions, presented by the Wheeler Opera House and Mountainfilm in Telluride, gained a strong foothold. After steady growth over three years, it took off with strong numbers and an audible buzz in year four.

“We saw those flex points you want to see in a festival, where word of mouth was taking over from any other form of advertising,” Gram Slaton, the executive director of the Wheeler, said. “People were not only excited about it but bringing other people in, totally blind.”

Slaton is confident that MountainSummit will see continued growth in its fifth year. The program for this year’s festival features several hits from Mountainfilm in Telluride, which was held in spring, plus several presentations not included at Mountainfilm. MountainSummit is set for Aug. 22 through 25 at the Wheeler.

Among the films that were not screened in Telluride is “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer.” Directed by Mike Lerner and Max Pozdorovkin, the documentary centers around three young Russian women who were arrested after staging a performance-art piece in a Moscow church. The film earned a Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival. Also in the controversial category at MountainSummit is the festival-opening of “Pandora’s Promise,” director Robert Stone’s controversial film about environmentalists who are embracing nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

A pair of films fulfills the promise of the festival’s MountainSummit title. “The Summit” is set in August 2008, on the deadliest day in the history of K2, when 11 climbers died on the world’s second highest mountain. The festival-closing film is “High and Hallowed: Everest 1963,” about the unusual and daring route taken by climbers from the first American team to summit Everest.

Also exploring the outdoors is “Maidentrip,” about a 14-year-old girl from the Netherlands who is determined to be the youngest person to sail around the globe solo.

“Life According to Sam,” a hit in Telluride, likewise focuses on a determined teenager. The film profiles Sam Berns, a 16-year-old from Massachusetts who suffers from progeria, a disease that dramatically advances the aging process. The story involves Berns’ family, who mobilize their forces to develop a cure for progeria, but it also examines Berns’ desire to live a full, normal life. Berms will participate in a discussion via Skype.

Appearing in person for a special event will be Tom Shadyac, director of some of Hollywood’s most successful comedies, including “Ace Ventura: Pet Detective” and “Bruce Almighty.” Shadyac is also a MountainSummit regular, having presented “I Am,” about his search for what makes humans beings happy, in Aspen. “He’s our mascot, our greatest cheerleader,” Slaton said. “What he brings is his own particular passion and energy that are just infectious.”

Shadyac will host a special presentation, with a feature-film screening and a talk about his latest project.

Rounding out the film program are “Manhunt,” Greg Barker’s documentary about the CIA’s hunt for Osama bin Laden and billed as “the real-life ‘Zero Dark Thirty’”; the Telluride Audience Award winner “God Loves Uganda,” about American Christian fundamentalists exporting their faith to Uganda; and “Xmas Without China,” about the relationship between Chinese manufacturers and American consumers. MountainSummit also includes a pair of morning Coffee Talks, and a Cocktail Talk, with filmmakers and other guests discussing issues over beverages; and programs of adventure movies screened at the Ute Mountaineer.

Full festival passes will go on sale July 22. Day passes and single-event tickets will go on sale Aug. 12. For further information, go to wheeleroperahouse.com.


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