Telluride Mountainfilm coming to Aspen
August 21, 2009
ASPEN – On Memorial Day Weekend 2008, Gram Slaton was looking to escape from festival-land. With the debut of the Aspen RoofTop Comedy Festival a week ahead of him, the executive director of the Wheeler Opera House took leave for Telluride, seeking some head-clearing rest and relaxation.Instead, he found himself dumped into the middle of another festival: Mountainfilm in Telluride, which was entering its 30th year as a local Memorial Day tradition. And there was no escaping. Like the town’s other major festivals, Telluride Bluegrass and the Telluride Film Festival, Mountainfilm saturated the narrow village, occupying not only five theater venues, but restaurants, parks, art galleries, schools and the library. The four-day event turned Telluride into what David Holbrooke, Mountainfilm’s festival director, calls “part film festival, part think-tank, part jamboree.”Slaton was greeted in Telluride with the last things he wanted to see: an unmissable banner across Colorado Avenue, passes around necks, what he called “a quiet buzz” as people pored over printed programs. As he headed toward the gondola to take him to his accommodations in Mountain Village, he found himself pulled into the Camel’s Garden Hotel, where the restaurant had been turned into Mountainfilm headquarters. Despite his original intentions, he was quickly and happily sucked into the atmosphere, which he found truly festive. His affection for Mountainfilm – and the end of his hopes for a non-working weekend – was sealed when he met the event’s executive director, Peter Kenworthy, who greeted Slaton by putting a lanyard around his neck with a Mountainfilm punch pass.On the artistic side, Slaton was gripped by “Red Gold,” a documentary about Alaska’s salmon industry being threatened by a proposed mining operation, which was on a program with a short film about John Lennon and a talk by Azzam Alwash, a defender of Iraq’s wetlands. On the organizational side, Slaton was blown away by just about everything he witnessed.”The event was just so cool and had such a great vibe to it,” he said. “It just enveloped the entire town. Everyone in Telluride was a part of this festival. It just seemed like what Aspen was back in 1990, which is what everyone celebrates as its final great hurrah.”On day two of his non-vacation, Slaton began exploring how he might transplant that Mountainfilm vibe in Aspen. “The next day I said, How do we bring this to town?” recalled Slaton. “Aspen needs to have this – that’s what kept running through my mind.”It didn’t take long to fill that perceived need. Just 15 months after Slaton’s unexpected weekend of festivating, MountainSummit, co-presented by Mountainfilm in Telluride and the Wheeler, settles into Aspen Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 27-30. The festival brings four days of films, conversations, a gallery walk, and the Moving Mountains symposium, focusing – as it did this past spring in Telluride – on the subject of food. Guest speakers for MountainSummit include mountaineers Jim Whittaker, the first American to climb Everest, and Ed Viesturs, the first American to reach all of the planet’s 8,000-meter-plus peaks; Chris Jordan, an artist whose work has strong environmental themes; Tim DeChristopher, whose rogue actions at a Bureau of Land Management auction saved thousands of Utah land from being drilled for fossil fuels, and may yet land him in jail; and Azzam Alwash, the Iraqi environmentalist who fascinated Slaton at the 2008 Mountainfilm.Among the seven feature-length films to be screened are “Surfing 50 States,” about two Australian surfers and their quixotic and uninformed effort to ride the waves from Iowa to Tennessee; “The Cove,” an adventurous expos on hunting whales and dolphins in the waters off Japan; “Rock Prophecies,” a profile of music photographer Robert Knight; and “The Farm: Ten Down,” a look inside Louisiana’s notorious Angola State Prison.••••As it turns out, hauling Mountainfilm from the San Juans to the Roaring Fork Valley involved little persuading from the Aspen end. Mountainfilm has often been turned into a road show; since being launched in 2000, its Mountainfilm on Tour has landed in locations from Carbondale to Portland, Maine to Tasmania. But the touring program has offered only quick hits of Mountainfilm, usually a one- or two-day program of screenings, rather than the full-on immersion that Aspen is about to experience, and the Telluride contingent has been looking to expand its toehold.”We’re thrilled Gram asked us to do this,” said David Holbrooke, a part-time Telluride resident who has experienced Mountainfilm as a filmmaker participant, and, for the last two events, as the festival director. “This is a different scale. Hopefully it will serve as a model. People ask all the time, ‘These films are great: How can my friends in Chicago, Seattle, L.A. see them?’ This will be a test case to see if we can build something out of our town that works.” Holbrooke said that Chicago and Berkeley are prominent sites on the radar for extending Mountainfilm’s reach, as well as Brooklyn, which Holbrooke also calls home.All parties involved seem to understand that moving Mountainfilm is not simply a matter of finding a movie screen and signing up a handful of notable speakers. In Telluride, a town even more overflowing with festivals than Aspen, Mountainfilm holds a special place, especially among the local. Part of that has to do with the multi-faceted content of the festival: As Slaton notes, “It wasn’t just a film festival, not just an ideas festival, not just an arts festival.” And while there is an emphasis on the outdoors, there is attention paid to various cultures and individuals that have little to do with the adventure world. “Mountains can be both literal and metaphorical,” said Holbrooke, who has been credited with expanding the scope of the event. So Mountainfilm – and, it is hoped, MountainSummit – holds appeal for athletes, academics and art lovers, for those into extreme-sport films and for those interested in more mind-oriented adventures.Beyond the stories told and the ideas exchanged, Mountainfilm has created its own mini-culture in Telluride, revolving around participation, inspiration, and the festival’s tagline, “Celebrating Indomitable Spirit.” Holbrooke likens Mountainfilm to other gatherings that have created a unique niche: Burning Man in the Nevada desert; TED in California; the Aspen Institute’s Ideas Festival, which he attended this summer.”It’s hard to describe it until people taste it,” said Holbrooke, from Brooklyn, where he was trying to wrangle his family’s backyard chickens. “But Gram wandered into it and was bitten by the bug. Like I was, and like a lot of people have been. We’re hoping people will taste it and enjoy it.”Holbrooke isn’t so concerned with duplicating that particular flavor at MountainSummit. He expects the festival to develop a taste of its own through the venues, the energy volunteers and attendees put into it, and the rhythm of life that is unique to Aspen. “It’s going to create its own vibe,” he said. “People in Telluride just get it. But MountainSummit will have to be built. They are different audiences; they are different towns. But I love the fact that we can build it around the Wheeler, which is a great theater in a great location.”Slaton understands as well as anyone that another festival doesn’t top of the list of Aspen community needs. But he sees an opportunity to launch something new that consolidates the best aspects of Food & Wine, Jazz Aspen, the Ideas Festival, the Aspen Music Festival and Aspen Filmfest.”I don’t think we’ve found a way yet in this town to broker a deal so that the entire wealth of what we do so well comes together in one festival,” he said. “In Telluride it’s a really intense six days, all in one big, heady rush. That’s what we’d love to do with this – pull all the elements of what we do together all summer long into one intense, mind-blowing weekend.”Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland says the relentless activity that marks the town’s summers is just another reason to welcome MountainSummit.”Why not?” he said. “From the perspective of your basic three-job local, you need three mountain festivals to have a chance to attend even one of them. I miss most of Filmfest and Shortsfest because I’m working. If they’re repeated, I have a fighting chance to go.”Ireland added that even with the plethora of festivals, Aspen is not currently at maximum capacity, so MountainSummit – which is timed not to overlap with any other major events – won’t overburden traffic and demand for rooms and restaurant tables.And Ireland got a close-up view of Mountainfilm, having traveled to Telluride in May to take in several films. A film festival like that, he said, is an excellent generator of positive activity.”People go to a movie, wait for the next movie, and become a presence downtown,” he said. “That adds ambience, and when you’ve got people downtown it attracts more people to come check out what they’re doing.”••••To Holbrooke, what makes Mountainfilm special is that the attendees are not merely being entertained. They are engaging with some of the major issues of the day in an environment that encourages interaction. The 43-year-old Holbrooke first attended Mountainfilm in 1999, while planning his wedding in Telluride; he calls it “sort of a life-changing experience.” He believes he is not alone in being so profoundly affected by a four-day festival.”What we’re really good at at Mountainfilm is opening people’s eye,” said Holbrooke, who has had several of his films – including last year’s “Hard As Nails,” a documentary about an offbeat Catholic priest that was made for HBO – at the festival. “We’re not trying to be didactic; we’re just trying to make people aware. Chris Jordan says that Telluride’s a town of awake people. I love that description.”Every bit of reason, common sense, says we can’t continue to live this way. We try to look at these issues in a way that is, we hope, eye-opening.”MountainSummit will address the environment in “The Cove”; “Big River Man,” about a man swimming the length of the Amazon; and the talks by Tim DeChristopher and Azzam Alwash; the fairness of American prisons in “The Farm”; homelessness in “Carts of Darkness.” The food symposium, which takes place at the Aspen Institute’s Doerr-Hosier Center, looks at answers to the problems of obesity, starvation and the destructive aspects of the world’s food-production systems. Despite the potential heaviness of the topics, the films and speakers were chosen for offering solutions to the problems, and even addressing the ills with a sense of humor.”It’s difficult questions and hopeful answers,” said Slaton, noting that the majority of the program was culled from the last two Mountainfilm events, though there are speakers and at least one film – “The Horse Boy,” about a couple that travels to Outer Mongolia in an effort to heal their autistic son – that are new to the Aspen event.”That’s what I loved about it,” Slaton continued. “Whether it was two goofs like the Yes Men who walk around [in the activist-spoof film, “The Yes Men Fix the World”] like Marx Brothers-style anarchists, or a former snowboarding adventure-film maker who is now in a wheelchair [Murray Siple, in “Carts of Darkness”], it’s those three words: Celebrating Indomitable Spirit.”The symposium on food that Slaton attended at this year’s Mountainfilm was six hours long, covering topics from nutrient loss in soil to the harmful additives in processed foods. But Slaton didn’t find the experience to be a drag. “It didn’t tell you just how screwed up the system was,” he said. “It gave you things you can do right now to fix the system. So it was a positive and energizing experience, walking out of that room.”Walking out of his first Mountainfilm, in 2008, Slaton knew it was just a few days till he unveiled his RoofTop Comedy Festival in Aspen. But, coming out of Mountainfilm, he found it hard to get pumped up about stand-up comedians. “RoofTop seemed inconsequential at the time,” he said.Now he has a festival of substance to present. There are hurdles to jump: Is Aspen festivaled out by late August? Can a festival that claims to be unique be successfully transferred to another location? Will MountainSummit reveal the subtle but significant differences between Telluride and Aspen? Holbrooke believes that the core virtues of Mountainfilm are strong enough to withstand the relocation.”There’s something essential to who we are that is translatable,” he said. “Because everywhere, people are seeing the world needs to change. And we’re in the middle of that in Mountainfilm.”firstname.lastname@example.org
Featuring film screenings, conversations, a gallery walk, and the Moving Mountains symposium on food, Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 27-30, at the Wheeler Opera House and other locations. For further information, go to wheeleroperahouse.com.