It is a common feature of film festivals for the selections in the program to be conversant with one another. Themes emerge across narratives, zeitgeist winds blow a certain direction. Differences in style register as arguments over form shouted across the dinner table.

In Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, a woman falls in love with a fish creature thing. Bug-eyes, dorsal spikes, but anatomically human enough in the right places. The courtship develops over meals and listening to records, the usual stuff. It is a love that is ocean deep, unable to be articulated—something del Toro makes literal: the woman is mute. She gets by on sign language. In Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck, two kids in separate storylines navigate the big city on sight alone. They are deaf, and sign language is employed here, too. You sense a desire in each film to strip the medium down to its base elements, image and sound. A way to walk an art form back to its original cave paintings. So these two films, made apart from one another but now sharing the same screens at Telluride Film Festival, are shoved into conversation at the far end of the local bar, communing not via sign language but through the language of cinema. 

Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water. Photograph by Kerry Hayes, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox

One sees a film in the broader context of both its contemporaries and its forebears. This applies especially at Telluride due to the festival’s tremendous reach; it is known for its considerable breadth in world cinema. This year found German director Barbet Schroeder’s The Venerable W., a documentary filmed in Myanmar, paired with Paul Schrader’s First Reformed from the U.S.—two portraits of extremism in unlikely religious figures. Kean, or Disorder and Genius, this year’s choice for the festival tradition of accompanying a restored silent film with a live orchestra, might transport the viewer to a period that is exhumed in Wonderstruck. And Errol Morris’ upcoming series Wormwood touching briefly on the Phoenix Program, a CIA program developed during the Vietnam War to undermine the structure of the Viet Cong, drops a few footnotes in the fields of Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War.

Documentary film makes a strong showing every year—both Morris and Burns are mainstays at the festival—and this year’s guest director was Joshua Oppenheimer, whose The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence both premiered at Telluride before claiming their place in essential contemporary cinema. Oppenheimer, responsible for choosing a slate of films to accompany the main program including Titicut Follies and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, insisted he made his selections in response to our country’s current political flashpoint, and in doing so framed the discussion of the status of the medium itself. How can documentarians reckon with the accusation of “fake news” when the form operates on a basis of manipulating footage in search of the truth? How should we consider the weaponization of footage in today’s political climate? With the democratization of handheld documentation, video has never been cheaper—or more valuable, as evidence or propaganda.

Jaden Michael, Oakes Fegley and Julianne Moore in Wonderstruck. Photograph by Mary Cybulski, courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Thorny questions with no ready answers. Having been at the center of the combative relationship between state and media and imprisoned for his political activity, however, the artist Ai Weiwei seemed distinctly poised to meet these questions. The politics behind his film Human Flow, about the global refugee crisis, are easy to identify, but the technique—a discipline and perspective carried over from the art world and applied to every frame—staves off accusations of agitprop.

Ai threads his presence throughout the work: he is first seen walking along a beach with his son; refugees take selfies with him. He is, of course, not the first documentarian to insert himself into the film—many docs are about the filmmakers themselves. The polemics of Michael Moore’s work stem from his onscreen persona, for example. Ai’s brief appearances, however, just hang around as gentle reminder of who the filmmaker is behind the film. The idea that art is inseparable from the artist is an art world given: viewers are expected to approach the work from every conceivable angle, including the one behind the piece itself. Ai’s exile from his own home country is never explicitly mentioned, but it is a critical lens through which Human Flow, a film with displaced peoples as its subject, is viewed. I found his appearances to be gestures of humility, a way of conceding authority as anything but the artist he is: just someone with an eye, just another witness.

Transparency is a major issue Ai has taken the Chinese government to task about, and here he applies it (beyond his own identity as artist) to the filmmaking process. Instead of the shot–reverse shot of the subject and filmmaker you might find in standard interviews, Ai fills the reverse shot with the entire crew: the camera set-up, the cameraman, boom operator, mic, everyone. It’s a choice more at home in a gallery exhibit than a cineplex, an art world practice born in reaction to the oneiric impulses of cinema, meant to break the spectator from the illusion being cast. (By way of contrast, Frederick Wiseman’s Titicut Follies, leaves the filmmaking invisible—it’s a paragon of traditional direct cinema.) Ai is giving the viewer space to regard his subjects from a comfortable distance. That distance—the film’s perspective—is carefully maintained from shot to shot, location to location, so that the relationship between filmmaker and subjects, from filmmaker to audience, and finally from the audience to the film, is clearly drawn. Perhaps it took an outsider to his own country to see the refugee crisis with such panoramic vision. And perhaps it required a relative outsider to film to suit the documentary to our newly uncertain times.

Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird. Courtesy of A24

The presence of the filmmaker, even when not projected directly onto the screen, lurks within every film at a festival, as it is often introduced by its makers, then unpacked in the Q&A to follow. This is especially so with movies that carry a whiff of autobiography. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird follows a girl in her last year of high school, looking for a way out of what feels to her like a small town (the filmmaker’s hometown of Sacramento). She assigns herself a new nickname, which—she hopes—is safety-pinned to a new identity. It’s been done before, though not with such clarity. The film understands a kind of innocent pretension as a function of parochialism. Her desire to learn French, her sense of belonging to the East Coast she’s never been to: these are little snorkel intakes to another world beyond the suffocation of small town life. You can sense where that impatient ambition might take her—Gerwig’s career, basically. Maybe not, but you might see flashes of her early career as Lady Bird grows into her voice. The stakes of the film are decidedly low, but with the buzz surrounding other films directed by women (Chloe Zhao’s The Rider, Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father)—along with the fest’s main event panel of trailblazing women—the origin story of a female artist-in-the-making took on added weight. Lady Bird is a love letter to the town that made her. The film opens with a quote from Sacramento’s own Joan Didion about the quaintness of the holidays in the city, though it is essentially an adaptation of another, oft-quoted Didion line, the one about being “well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be.” All the films do that here, really: keep on nodding terms with their influences, their predecessors. At Telluride, where those influences share the same screen and play on the same street, it’s impossible not to. MM

The 44th Telluride Film Festival ran September 1-4, 2017, in Telluride, Colorado.