Of Mountains and Movies
A Week at the Telluride Film Festival
The Telluride Film Festival is the pot-smoking, capitalism-hating bohemian of the film festival world. While most of the major film festivals, from Cannes to Venice to Toronto, revel in the glitz and commercial spectacle of it all, Telluride runs a quieter operation focused solely on the movies. No competition, no paparazzi or free critics’ passes (“Telluride is proud of being unwelcome to the press,” declared one of the organizers on my first day there), no red carpets (everyone from Amy Adams to Rooney Mara showed up in jeans and a shirt), and a small, exquisitely programmed line-up of films that remain a closely guarded secret until the night before the festival (spawning obsessive speculators like this Oklahoma high school teacher who runs a blog devoted entirely to predicting the Telluride selection).
The festival’s cult-like feel is compounded by its setting. Nestled high up in the Rockies, Telluride is notoriously complicated to get to, and a few of the theaters at the festival venue are accessible only by gondola lifts. The mountainous ambiance is breathtaking in every sense of the word: oxygen runs very thin at an elevation of 8,750 feet, leaving you constantly out of breath and dehydrated even as you marvel at the picturesque horizon. On top of it all, the weather is extremely mercurial. As you run uphill and downhill from theater to theater—bumping randomly into an entourage-free Tom Hanks or Werner Herzog—you are sleep-deprived and dizzy and sunburnt and freezing and utterly euphoric all at once. Cinephilia feels a lot like altitude sickness at the Telluride Film Festival.
Every year, the festival selects fifty students from universities all over the world for its prestigious Student Symposium, a curated program of screenings and discussions led by film theorist Linda Williams and critic Howie Moshkowitz. The rigorous program begins at 6:00am every day with a group discussion of the previous day’s slate of movies, followed by a packed schedule of about five movies a day. The free hours between the screenings are taken up by the highlight of the symposium: up-close conversations with the visiting filmmakers, which offers the rare opportunity to unpack the movies being shown at the festival with the very people who make them. The day usually ends at around 2:00am, at which point all the students retire to the cozy lodges into which they are all packed, sharing beds, couches, and floor-space in what feels like some fantastical summer camp for grown-up film geeks.
This year, I was one of the lucky students invited to attend the Symposium. And so, early in September, I ended up spending a sleepless, caffeine-and-bagels-fueled week in Telluride, watching 14 movies in the span of four and half days.
On our first full day at the festival, the student cohort was holed up in the tiny Nugget Theatre for seven straight hours, watching three back-to-back features: Lost in Paris, directed and acted by Brussels-based duo Dominique Abel and Fiona Gordon; The B-Side, Errol Morris’ latest documentary on large-format Polaroid photographer Elsa Dorfman; and Toni Erdmann, German auteur Maren Ade’s celebrated Cannes winner. By the time the pleasant slapstick shenanigans of the first and the bittersweet, end-of-an-era melancholy of the second film wound down, the crowd was starting to descend into a hungry, stir-crazy distractedness. And then the unwieldy, utterly fascinating Toni Erdmann began to unfold on screen and we snapped into rapt attention, bemused and amused in equal parts.
When his beloved dog passes away, ageing dad Winfried (Peter Simonischek) decides to visit his daughter Ines (Sandra Hüller), a frigid businesswoman working in Bucharest—and so begins a sprawling, three-hour comedy of flailing attempts at familial connection. Much to Ines’ chagrin, Winfried is an indefatigable prankster who only speaks the language of dad jokes and whoopee cushions. In a hilariously cringe-inducing scene, he tries to endear himself to her corporate colleagues by joking (rather elaborately) about getting himself a new daughter because this one’s too busy. The stiflingly straightlaced, deeply unhappy Ines is crumbling under the pressures of work and workplace sexism, and she lashes out cruelly at her father. But instead of driving him away, her outburst inspires him to crank the screwballing up a notch, and the film takes a wild swerve towards the absurd. Winfried dons a wig and fake buck-teeth and transforms into “Toni Erdmann,” an odd, portly personality coach who inserts himself into all aspects of Ines’ life—from business meetings to coke-fuelled parties—with annoying persistence.
Any attempt at characterising or typifying Toni Erdmann cheapens the glorious excess that makes the film so singular. You could label it a black comedy and describe it as a plot about a father and daughter trying to understand one another, and you wouldn’t be wrong. However, Maren Ade’s masterpiece is driven not by genre or teleology, but by an impulse as wonderfully complex, unpredictable and uncontained as it is human. Meandering erratically across its 162-minute runtime, the film simply “happens” in episodes that cover vast emotional and narrative ground. The last hour of the movie features, in succession, an awkwardly soul-baring singing performance, a naked party set-piece that had the audience in splits, and a touching, wordless exchange between a barely-clothed Ines and a heavily-costumed Winfried in a public park. Rendered by the actors and director with an immaculate eye for nuance and a refreshingly light touch, Toni Erdmann emerged as one of the gems at this year’s Telluride Film Festival.
Fathers and daughters turned out to be a good card to play at this year’s festival. Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, which we saw on our second day, also takes a splintering father-daughter relationship as its subject and Romania as its setting. But if Toni Erdmann is blackly comic, Mungiu’s socio-realist drama is soaked in sobering shades of grey—both literally and thematically.
The social dysfunction that Mungiu sets out to capture is on display right from the opening scene, set within a dull, concrete housing block in the city of Cluj. Someone throws a brick through the window of the house of the respectable Dr. Romeo Aldea (Adrien Titieni), adding unease to the oppressive discontent that weighs down like fog on him and his wife Magda (Lia Bugnar). Their frustrated existence and fractured marriage is made bearable only by their knowledge that their daughter Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus), having received a scholarship to attend an English university, will escape their provincial existence. But the mysterious brick turns out to be a portent for something worse: On her way to school later that day, Eliza is assaulted and nearly raped by a strange man. The encounter leaves her with a broken wrist and post-traumatic stress that threaten to interfere with her final exams—and consequently, her conditional university acceptance.
There is nothing more poignant and telling of a society in crisis than Romeo’s turmoiled reaction to Eliza’s assault, brought to life by an excellent Titeni whose every glance and movement is heavy with his character’s self-loathing. Romeo oscillates, somewhat shamefacedly, between genuine concern for Eliza’s immediate well-being and desperate hope for her to escape Romania. He starts to seek out favours to ensure her good grades—from a friendly local policeman, from the chief exam inspector who owes him, from the Deputy Major who needs a crucial favour in return—sinking deeper and deeper into the murky web of bureaucratic corruption as Eliza watches with growing, indignant disillusionment.
With his aversion to frequent cutting and non-diegetic music—“any direct sign of a director in a film”, as he put it in his discussion with us post the screening—Mungiu combines vérité-style realism with gentle, but pointed political critique in a manner reminiscent of contemporary Iranian cinema (he cited Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation as an influence). Captured in desaturated blues and greys, the crumbling suburban setting makes the Aldeas’ despair feel textured and tangible, while long and naturalistic handheld takes, punctuated only by diegetic sound, imbue the tragedy of the proceedings with a horrifying matter-of-factness—the suggestion that this might not be too far out of the ordinary. And like the Iranian masters Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf at their finest, Mungiu’s greatest accomplishment is the way he entrenches the personal so searingly within in the political. While one may bemoan the state of things that lead to the tragedy of the Aldeas, it is nearly impossible to find fault in any of the actors in Mungiu’s theatre of corruption, each trying to survive by making little compromises that all add up to a social malaise larger than their sum.
Fourteen years ago, Barry Jenkins, a young film student from Florida State University, participated in the same Student Symposium I was attending. Besotted by the festival, he kept returning to Telluride—first as a production intern or “dog”, then a volunteer, and eventually a “ringmaster” who introduced films. In 2013, he introduced 12 Years a Slave at the 40th edition of the festival and hosted a Q&A with Steve McQueen. There he met the proprietors of Brad Pitt’s Plan B Entertainment (the production company behind 12 Years), and they asked Jenkins what he was working on. He told them about a script he had just finished, an adaptation of Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. Soon, Plan B read the script and signed on as co-producers. Three years later Jenkins’ Moonlight, with its magical Telluride origin-story, premiered at the 43rd festival to rapturous praise and multiple standing ovations, with the extraordinarily humble Jenkins celebrated as the festival’s own, homegrown auteur. The students, who had the opportunity to talk with Jenkins at length, responded to the film with a special enthusiasm: Our admiration for Jenkins was tinged with the hope that in 14 years, perhaps we’d return to Telluride with a blue “Filmmaker” badge, too.
Based loosely on the lives of McCraney and Jenkins, Moonlight is a gorgeous, epic essay that traverses three stages in the life of young Chiron as he navigates extreme poverty, a broken family, and confused sexuality in 1980s Miami. From vignette to vignette, Chiron transforms dramatically, as does his name. We first meet him as the shy, wide-eyed “Little” (Alex Hibbert), running from bullies and a crack-addicted mother as he stumbles into the life of the self-assured, paternal drug dealer Juan (a mesmerising Mahershala Ali). He asks Juan at one point if he’s a “faggot”; Juan replies tenderly, “You could be gay, but you don’t gotta let people call you a faggot.” In the next act, this unutterable question of sexuality weighs down heavily on the gangly, adolescent Chiron (Ashton Sanders), the angst of alienation lurking just below his reticence. An intimate encounter with his best friend Kevin leaves him with a moment of beautiful clarity—but a brutal bullying soon follows and Chiron transforms, in the third act, into the intimidatingly muscular, grill-sporting drug dealer “Black” (Trevante Rhodes).
It’s not as much a coming-of-age story as it is a coming-of-manhood. In a Boyhood-esque feat that owes much to the stellar actors, one can see Black’s younger selves just underneath Rhodes’ guarded performance of hypermasculinity. His gaze is still searching and fearful, and it speaks volumes more than his occasional words; his movements betray the tenseness of a man uncomfortable in his own skin. Black may have learnt how to be—and to survive as—a black man, but he hasn’t yet learnt how to be himself. The same questions of identity that so frightened Little still haunt Black’s heavy, melancholic glances and silences, leavened only slightly by the film’s moving, deliciously indefinite conclusion.
While there is much to be said about the radical cultural work the film performs in making visible facets of black masculinity usually absent from the screen, Moonlight is not just an important film, but also a beautifully crafted cinematic work. Jenkins directs with an acute awareness of the voyeuristic consumption of suffering black bodies in the media and the potency of the images he puts on screen. His formal choices are deliberate and studied, consciously rejecting the sort of “gritty realism” that encourages passive voyeurism. Instead, he frames faces in close-up with a confrontational frontality that forces the audience not merely to watch, but to enter into dialogue with the film. Characters regularly gaze piercingly through the camera’s fourth wall, directly addressing the viewer. “I didn’t want to put these really personal, dark things from my past on the screen and let the spectator stay completely outside of it,” Jenkins explained during a Q&A. In other instances in the film, he makes careful, powerful uses of offscreen space: As Chiron gets beaten up in a heartbreakingly violent scene, all the punches land offscreen—all we see is his bloody, defiant face entering the frame again and again as he picks himself up after every beating.
Moonlight may be a film about dark, complex, and unsaid things, but it is also a film brimming with simple joys: a baptism-like swim lesson, a beachside first kiss, a wordless, passionate reunion. Jenkins colours these joys with confident, effervescent stylization, expressionistic editing, and Nicholas Britell’s soulful chopped-and-screwed soundtrack that ties the film’s three chapters into a lyrical whole. Moonlight delivers affect, style and a radical politics with the impossible levity of a sad song. And it was the song that everyone was humming at this year’s Telluride Film Festival.
The rest of the line-up was more or less stellar (in addition to the above, Manchester by the Sea, Neruda and Arrival were standouts), and though there were a few duds (Wakefield, Bleed For This), it is hard to write about the festival with any kind of objective restraint. Maybe it’s the delirium-inducing altitude and the gorgeous scenery, but Telluride has the famous tendency to inspire hyperbole in its attendees. Press coverage of the festival follows a similar pattern every year: Headlines are all variants of “If you thought movies were dead, Telluride will make you think again.” Critics declare the festival an oasis of true cinema after a summer of artless sequels and blockbusters. When his new movie Bleed For This premiered at this year’s festival, Aaron Eckhart proclaimed to a cheering crowd, “Everyone in L.A. knows that this is the best film festival in the world.” A friend who attended the symposium last year told me it was “the best week of her life.”
Having been to a grand total of one film festival in my life, I can’t attest to whether Telluride is the best film festival in the world. But there is something deeply affirming, especially for a young person, about the festival’s refreshingly modest pursuit of an appreciation for cinema. My fellow students and I left the symposium crackling with renewed inspiration, invigorated by the festival’s off-duty model vibe: Its ability to convince hundreds of people to make an arduous journey up into the Rockies without the enticements of awards and glamour; its equalizing tendency that has everyone, from mega-stars to critics to young film students waiting in the same lines, eating at the same restaurants, and milling freely around the same streets; its insistence on critical conversations about cinema; and its commitment to movies that push the boundaries of the art and the industry. If not an oasis of true cinema, the Telluride Film Festival is certainly an oasis of idealism about cinema in an industry that feels more and more calcified and capitalistic.
That idealism is the lifeblood of a young film student.