Telluride or Die: Telluride’s Student Symposium is a Young Filmmaker’s Dream Come True, Says a 2017 Grad

I had the honor of attending last weekend’s Telluride Film Festival as a member of its 44th Student Symposium, which ran August 31 to September 4, 2017.

An integral part of the festival, the symposium allows 50 college film students from around the world access to free passes, a cash stipend and a curated schedule of movies and discussions with the filmmakers. It’s the educational opportunity of a lifetime, an economically efficient way to attend one of the country’s premier film events, as well as a nurturing gesture on the festival’s part. Where else will you get an opportunity to attend a packed screening of Todd Haynes’ new film and, hours later, get the chance to talk to him in person? Of course, the pride of the Symposium is alum Barry Jenkins, of Moonlight fame, for whom Telluride seems to be a rite of passage, a must-attend on the path to success.

The symposium is one of the festival circuit’s best-kept secrets. I found out about it from a fellow student early this year and immediately researched what it would take to get in: an essay about a film that we found to be important to our lives, as well as a letter of recommendation from one of our film professors. In talking with my fellow students, I found that our films of choice spread across the whole spectrum—from Tampopo to The Seventh Seal, from The Tree of Life to The Room.

Telluride itself is very small, with just a main street and a few residential streets. A gondola ride up the mountain gets you to Mountain Village, home to the slopes during ski season and a few resorts. As a Colorado resident, I’ve often visited Telluride for vacation, both during the summer for hiking and swimming and during the winter for skiing. The festival always felt mythic to me, though; I’d try to scope out where the theaters were—to no avail.

Little did I know that what I was experiencing back then was the secret appeal of the festival. The four-day event, taking place over Labor Day weekend, seems to rise from hidden layers of the town: The theaters are converted buildings that for a few magical days house cinema’s best. The Galaxy Theatre is a converted school gymnasium; the Werner Herzog Theatre is a converted ice skating rink. The town molds itself to the needs of the film festival as it does for its annual Bluegrass Festival, Blues and Brew Festival and other events throughout the summer season. Despite all the prestigious premieres and A-list celebrities, Telluride remains Telluride. As a result, a relaxed, improvisational feeling pervades the fest, unlike any other film festival I’ve attended. There are no red carpets, no big press junkets and no stressed-out big city trappings to distract from the experience. Our Student Symposium schedules ran 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, though this never felt like a burden.

This year’s festival consisted of 30 films, spread out across 10 or so theaters. Selected by Executive Director Julie Huntsinger and Co-Founder Tom Luddy, it’s an intimate program of new and exciting work, featuring films from all over the globe. In addition to new films from Alexander Payne, Guillermo Del Toro and Samuel Moaz, we got new films from Chloe Zhao and Agnes Varda, as well as Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. Huntsinger and Luddy are careful to craft a unique experience from Telluride. There is the inevitable overlap from Sundance, Berlin (A Fantastic Woman and The Other Side of Hope), Cannes (The Rider and Faces Places), Venice (First Reformed)—not to mention the close-on-its-heels TIFF—but this year Telluride managed to nab the world premieres of Battle of the Sexes, Hostiles and Darkest Hour. 

On the night before the festival started, our symposium cohort was lucky enough to attend a staff-only screening of Guillermo del Toro’s new movie, The Shape of Water. It was a pleasure to sit among all those who worked so hard to put the festival together. (In fact, being in the Student Symposium often felt like highway robbery. I hadn’t put in the work, yet there I was! No matter. All were welcome at Telluride.) We watched Chloé Zhao’s newest film, The Rider—about a family of half-Native American cowboys—which we met with as much enthusiasm as Scott Cooper’s new film, Hostiles—a glossy production examining the archetypal “Cowboys versus Indians” trope. Outside of the films, the numerous panels and discussions included a “Wonder Women” panel featuring Billie Jean King, Angelina Jolie, Alice Waters and Natalie Portman. Another panel featured Zhao, Cooper and Werner Herzog, while another saw Lynn Novick, Francis Ford Coppola and Ken Burns. These filmmakers of all stripes covered vastly different material, yet all shared the same stage.

I never really got over the surrealism of the experience: sitting down for dinner and making awkward eye contact with Greta Gerwig, just a table away; heading up a gondola to explore Mountain Village and seeing Ethan Hawke on his way down the mountain. One night, I was getting ice cream when I ran into famed theater director Peter Sellers, one of the curators of the festival. Sellers gave me one of the biggest hugs I’ve ever received. The next day, strolling through the streets I ran into Ken Burns, who was singing “Happy Birthday” to none other than Werner Herzog. As I stopped to watch, Herzog cut a piece of his birthday cake and handed it to me. It was, of course, chocolate cake, and delicious.

After a screening of Samuel Maoz’s drama Foxtrot, a group of us ran in to cinematographer Ed Lachman. Instead of talking to him about his work on Haynes’ Wonderstruck, we talked about our opinions of Foxtrot. Lachman then gave us a hearty recommendation to Angelina Jolie’s new film First They Killed My Father, which he described as a very powerful experience.

Probably the most valuable experience of the symposium were the personal filmmaker sessions, which each ran 45 minutes and involved lengthy Q&As. During his, Todd Haynes was asked a question about how he separates the analysis of film and the pure sensory enjoyment. Haynes talked about his motivating love for film, citing both silent films and ’70s classics. The difference between the intellectual and the emotional is “the mysterious part of every film,” he told us. “It’s why, even in some cases, the very best intentions coming together, something doesn’t quite work. Film is a healthy democratic experience. Film is an artificial medium in that it’s all constructed, it’s all fake. A sense of belief and disbelief is always interactive. It’s also about the film’s ability to come alive within our heads. It comes alive because it’s triggering you in order to come alive.”

Lachman, when he spoke, brought up the silent films The Wind and The Crowd as well as The French Connection as major influences. Elsewhere, Paul Schrader pointed out the irony of showing his deliriously twisted new film First Reformed in the Chuck Jones Theater, a theater named after the sunny, good-natured Looney Tunes director.

Zhao, during her session, talked about the longing for nature inherent in her films (besides The Rider, she made Songs My Brothers Taught Me in 2015), and shared a refreshing opinion on cliché in cinema: “Clichés are OK. A lot of the time, it’s how you use them. You don’t want to avoid the truth for sake of avoiding clichés. You know what’s authentic, and that truthfulness needs to come first.”

Telluride Guest Director Joshua Oppenheimer, who selected six classic films to screen at the festival, also showed up to the symposium to talk about one of his picks, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, which he believes possesses “the saddest happy ending of all time.” Oppenheimer’s other selections included Titicut Follies, The Night of the Hunter and Even Dwarves Started Small. The socially conscious director of insta-classic recent docs The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence, Oppenheimer described the last six months in America as an experience of waking up from a dream and realizing one’s surroundings. He had existed his whole life in a fugue state, and the simmering tension of our society had only been half-apparent. So for Telluride 2017, he said, he chose films that felt like waking up from a dream of reality.

In this time of massive change, the Telluride Film Festival is here to remind that film alone cannot change the world—we, as individuals, can help to change the world. Our works are representations of us, the vessels by which we share our viewpoints and attempt to make an impact. There is a stark sincerity to both the films screened and the festival itself. This is a humbling, human festival, a personal experience that is uncommon. MM

The 44th Telluride Film Festival ran September 1-4, 2017, in Telluride, Colorado. The Student Symposium ran August 31 – September 4, 2017. Photograph by Vivien Best.

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