For a lot of people who care about the movies, the Telluride Film Festival is the very best festival on the planet.
Filmmakers say the same thing. They like the film-savvy audience; they like the intimacy of a festival tucked into a small town (no matter how glitzy), and they like it that there’s no jury choosing “winners.” The festival shows all films as equals — no voting, no preferences.
And everyone, filmmakers and film lovers alike, adores the surroundings. Telluride is small. You feel the embrace of the forest on three sides, and the grand sight of the peaks at the far end of the box canyon.
The festival began over Labor Day weekend of 1974, after co-founder Bill Pence drove into town to look at the old Sheridan Opera House as a potential movie theater. He was with James Card, the founder of the great archive at Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., and when Card saw the place, he told Pence, “You have to have a film festival here.”
Pence (with Tom Luddy and Stella Pence) did it. And over the years, in spite of the changes in the film business, the festival has held onto its prestige.
Early on, the festival had financial importance. Films came without distributors, and as Bill Pence has said, “Distribution contracts were signed on the courthouse steps.”
But not so much now. Only two films this year arrived without a distributor. Yet filmmakers still want the thrill of showing their films at the Telluride Film Festival, now 46 years old.
I saw some extraordinary films, and probably all of them are coming this way in the coming months.
The hot ticket was a Korean movie with the nasty title Parasite, which won the top prize, the Palme d’Or, at Cannes last May.
The director is Bong Joon-ho and the lead actor is Song Kong-ho — they called themselves Bong and Song all weekend. For close to 90 minutes, Parasite is a lively, hilarious picture of a conniving family who worm their way into the lives of an unforgivably dense rich family. The son becomes a tutor to the rich daughter; the father edges out the former chauffeur, and the mother takes over as housekeeper.
You know it can’t last, and for the last 40 minutes or so, Parasite erupts in violent resentment, jealousy and retribution. Yet the effect is not unjustified because by the end, you’ve experienced, cinematically at least, what rampant inequality can do to people.
Two other pictures, though, left me stunned — and the feeling hasn’t worn off. Dror Moreh has followed up his film The Gatekeepers, about the Israeli security force known as Shin Bet, with a new documentary The Human Factor, which looks at the dismal history of peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
The movie combines recent interviews with some of the negotiators over the years with a treasure of archival photos and film footage — Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin talking to each other and touching when they’re out of the public eye; Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton encouraging discussion, photos of all the people involved over the years that show their shifting postures and expressions.
The heart of the matter is that besides questions of policy and territory, these are human beings with personalities, desires, anxieties and needs. And uncontrollable events shift the game constantly.
Hafez al-Assad, who led Syria, (his son Bashar is now Syria’s president) was all set to make an accord with Israel over the Golan Heights, when he suddenly switched positions. It turns out he was dying and his attention went elsewhere. Arafat died; Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli murderously opposed to any kind of treaty with the Palestinians. Just on the verge of possibility, Bill Clinton became mired in the Lewinsky business.
The Human Factor brings home how simple luck turns events. You watch this film — knowing nothing has worked out — yearning for history to change. So many people, of surprising hope and goodwill, have failed to make peace happen.
On the last day of the festival, A Hidden Life came along, a three-hour film by Terrence Malick (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) about an Austrian farmer in World War II who refuses to sign the required loyalty oath to Hitler.
Malick plays the magnificent beauties of nature against the meanness of some human beings. The farm sits in the rolling hills circled by peaks of the Austrian Alps. The man and his wife milk the cows, cut the wheat with hand scythes, shear the sheep and make bread. She weaves. Her sister and his mother help out.
The place is green and lush like you can’t believe. No fighting ever comes to this remote, blessed place. But slowly, after the farmer has quietly refused to swear loyalty to Hitler, discreet signs of growing fascism foul the nest. The mailman no longer calls out a cheery greeting; the villagers drive the farmer away from community haying. Other women snub he wife. The local bishop equivocates.
It gets worse.
It’s astonishing how much effort and resources an evil government invests to clamp down on one quietly dissident farmer.
After he’s arrested, teenage soldiers with ignorant hatred in their eyes, acne and hats too big for their heads harass and beat him. He’s moved from prison to prison with ever more guards and soldiers abusing him.
His trial takes place in Berlin in a huge, ornate building with a panel of judges. A couple of quietly sympathetic officials plead with him to sign for the sake of his wife and children. No one will know what’s in his heart, they tell him.
Does his life matter? Does the unknown resistance of one man have any effect on the world?
After the movie, we all walked out into the grandeur of Telluride, which is not unlike the Alps in the film. Each of us wondering about these questions. What a way to end four days of fabulous cinema.
Howie Movshovitz teaches in the Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium, a program for college students.
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