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Original Thinkers festival debuted in Telluride's Transfer Warehouse in the fall of 2018. The fourth running of the ideas festival begins Thursday. (Handout)

It’s been a hard year everywhere. That weighed heavily on David Holbrooke as he mapped out a plan for the fourth annual Original Thinkers festival, which returns to Telluride Sept. 30 – Oct. 3 after a year of virtual offerings.

“Yes we look at some serious issues, but this is meant to be a festival that fuels you up,” says Holbrooke, the founder and ringleader of the thoughtful gathering. “So when you leave, you say ‘hell yeah.’ So that we can live in a way that is more intentional and more joyful. We need that. And we all know that we need that right now.”

Holbrooke spent a decade at the helm of Telluride’s Mountainfilm before launching his spin on the traditional film festival in 2018. Yes, Original Thinkers includes films, but there are speakers, musicians and artists interacting with each movie. (The Colorado Sun is a media sponsor of Original Thinkers.)

This year’s hybrid lineup offers six in-person events over four days in Telluride and 10 virtual shows that run through the month of October. The eclectic event swirls with social criticism, poignant illustrations of where society needs to improve, explorations of the human condition and celebrations of triumphs over seemingly impossible challenges.

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.

This year, the pandemic plays a starring role, but in the background. 

“This is an incredibly tricky and challenging time, as the emails in our inboxes tell us, so let’s come together and work through this together,” Holbrooke says. “Let’s listen to people who are living lives of purpose and integrity; who are trying to bring about change. How can we process the pain out there and move forward in real ways.”

Holbrooke is not one for small talk. He’s not an idle chit-chat kind of guy. He always probes and explores. He seems to study every interaction in case there’s a chance to glean some memorable nugget. He’s the guy who spends an hour on the sidewalk in deep conversation, head cocked, eyes locked and oblivious to passers-by and the coffee going cold in his hand. The curated Original Thinkers line-up adheres to that approach. This isn’t a light-hearted romp where you cheer and scream at the screen.

One event explores the youth suicide epidemic at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, with a showing of the “Bears on Pine Ridge” documentary and a forensic traumatologist sharing her strategies for healing. 

Another documentary, “Rebel Hearts,” follows L.A. nuns as they work to dismantle the patriarchy of the Catholic Church. “We Have Reached Our Moment” follows a man’s conversations with his father, who is not convinced climate change is real. That documentary serves as a launching point to discuss the scourge of fake news, including a conversation with a pioneer in the realm of virtual reality. 

The documentary “Mission: Joy,” which is inspired by bestseller “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World,” traces the friendship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. The Nobel Peace Prize winners joined Oscar-winning director Louie Psihoyos — he made that doc about dolphin killing, “The Cove,” in 2010 — to share lessons on how everyone can spread joy in their everyday lives.

One of the most popular events at Original Thinkers is what organizers call “The Big Idea,” a final confab designed to send festival goers home with hope. This year’s culminating Big Idea — called “Into The After” — includes the founder of Virgin Unite, which advises businesses and initiatives to help sway social and environmental change. Also speaking is Jennifer Grancio, the CEO of Engine No. 1, a new hedge fund that this spring led an activist campaign that ended with the fund putting three climate-savvy board members on the board of ExxonMobil, the largest oil company in the U.S.

In some of the events, the messages in the Original Thinkers events are obvious, Holbrooke says. In others, it’s more personal. 

“In many ways this is about hearing something and meeting someone and feeling something that will enable us to move forward in this confounding world,” he says. 

Original Thinkers is set at the end of September as a sort of quiet wrap to Telluride’s frenzied festival season. The gatherings are small — with an evolving list of COVID protocols — and not meant to add to the woes of the end-of-the-road community as it recovers from hosting tens of thousands of visitors over the summer. Holbrooke hopes locals come out and find respite from the busy summer in the gathering of speakers, movies and events.

“The challenges that mountain towns are facing right now are real and ongoing. What we do is step back and look at bigger themes,” he says. “We want our audience to step back and find the space to think through our own human condition and what we want to be as people and members of a community.”

The virtual component of Original Thinkers is meant to help the community as well, allowing people to dial in to the events from afar. With such a collection of deep thinkers and intellectual presentations, Holbrooke hopes the virtual lineup can make his festival more accessible to more people everywhere. 

Holbrooke shares how a friend told him he loved the festival, but he was “kind of intimidated” by the sophisticated event and its enlightened pursuit. This is not Blues and Brews. But it’s not some highbrow affair either, Holbrooke says.

“We want people to understand these are just stories. We’ve been hearing stories since forever. My hope is that people can hear these stories and think ‘Wow that really impacted me,’ and I can better understand my own space in this bigger story. I really think people are looking for that,” he says. “The need for meaning is real and it’s been made more real by the pandemic and the challenges that are facing us. We hope to be a space where people can find that meaning and maybe find affirmation to live perhaps a different trajectory than they might have otherwise.”

Jason Blevins lives in Eagle with his wife, daughters and a dog named Gravy. Topic expertise: Western Slope, public lands, outdoors, ski industry, mountain business, housing, interesting things Location: Eagle, CO Newsletter: The...