A diehard ski racer, Dave McCoy built the first of his portable rope tows on 11,053-foot Mammoth Mountain 80 years ago—for his own pleasure, at first, then he realized he might make a business of it.

With the permission of the U.S. Forest Service and generous assistance from friends, he opened a ski lodge in the early ’50s, and California’s most beloved ski destination was born.

Many had thought it impossible, McCoy recalled in a 1985 Sports Illustrated profile: “It was too stormbound, had too much snow, was too wet and was way too high.” Nevertheless, Mammoth Mountain Ski Area remains (as does McCoy, who turns 102 in August).

I go to Mammoth for a very different reason than the million-plus annual ski visitors’—i.e. to attend the Mammoth Lakes Film Festival—so I hadn’t known any of the above while in town over Memorial Day weekend. But reading that history now clarifies for me the kind of buoyant self-assurance of the town and its festival, three years old and climbing to new heights every year, and underscores the significance of the Sierra Spirit Award given annually to an independent moviemaker of note. This year’s recipient, indie hero John Sayles, said as much himself when he accepted the prize from Festival Director Shira Dubrovner and actor Vincent Spano, star of Sayles’ 1983 film Baby It’s You. After all, few know better than Sayles, and partner-producer Maggie Renzi, about scaling the peaks of self-driven indie moviemaking.

Sierra Spirit Award recipient John Sayles at Mammoth Lakes Film Festival 2017, prior to a screening of his feature Baby It’s You. Photograph by Jack Burke, courtesy of DiversionsLA.com

MLFF’s 2017 line-up, overseen by Director of Programming Paul Sbrizzi, was stronger than ever. As a feature documentary juror this year (my second) I was treated to an outstanding selection of titles: Mike Day’s stunning The Islands and the Whales, about the increasingly toxic relationship between denizens of the far-flung Faroe Islands and the whales they eat; Theo Anthony’s provocative Rat Film, a rumination on both rodents and socioeconomic disadvantage in Baltimore; Skye Borgman’s world-premiering Forever B, which tells a tale of child abduction and sexual abuse that sets my teeth on edge to think about even now. Stefan Avalos’ Slamdance favorite Strad Style was a winner at MLFF too, accompanied by the film’s charming subject, Daniel Houck. Docs aside, my favorite screening event was again the Shorts Encore block on Sunday morning, stringing together the work of any (inevitably hungover) filmmakers who haven’t left town yet.

With 74 films in total, and a record 90-odd attending filmmakers taking advantage of the festival’s compensated lodging and travel, MLFF has mastered the operations possible at its scale, so I find myself selfishly wishing that it can remain at its current size, though it will—and deserves to—grow. Its intimacy means there’s no attendee you can’t befriend if you want to, while its backdrop makes any inkling of boredom or claustrophobia impossible.

Speaking of which: In what is surely as iconic of a festival ritual as trudging through snow is in Park City, we ventured out again this year to the nearby hot springs, but this time at night. Plunged into pitch-blackness off the highway, we trekked out via iPhone flashlight beam until we heard, all of a sudden, human voices and water softly splashing. We stepped into the steaming pool gingerly, wading through a crowd of submerged silhouettes—facial features a dark blur, unidentifiable except for their voices. Someone suggested leaning back in the water, face up to the sky, and we looked up at the staggering starscape: shooting stars, constellations, the Milky Way. No disrespect to MLFF’s programming, but that was the most beautiful thing I saw all weekend. MM

Mammoth Lakes Film Festival 2017 ran May 24 – 28, 2017. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2017 issue. Top photograph by Joseph Marrone.