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Telluride's fourth annual Original Thinkers festival kicks off Thursday, with a virtual slate of events running through October. (David Holbrooke, Special to The Colorado Sun)

As a high school student, Kaatje Jones’ first introduction to international politics was hearing from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. 

Shortly after joining the PeaceJam chapter at Peak to Peak Charter School in Lafayette, she and more than 3,000 other students participated in the organization’s conference in Denver in 2006, attended by 10 Nobel laureates.

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They talked about starting change, and how it could ripple out from one person to a community or a country, she recalled. 

Jones, now 31, left the experience as “an incurable optimist,” she said. “To have that as my exposure, it makes me always look for the stories of the good.” 

She left the event with other lifelong memories: a hug from Tutu, the look on the Dalai Lama’s face when a fire alarm went off during his speech, and a detail about the duo that she still calls one of her favorite stories.

During an orientation at PeaceJam, the students were told about a meeting of the group of laureates who attended. 

“Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama had to be separated, because they started throwing Jolly Ranchers at each other,” she recalled. “There’s such a beautiful humanity to their friendship.” 

The friendship between the two leaders and their perspectives on positivity is the subject of the documentary “Mission: Joy – Finding Happiness in Troubled Times,” which kicked off the four-day Original Thinkers festival Thursday night in Telluride. Co-directors Louie Psihoyos and Peggy Callahan spoke about the film at the “Joy is an Inside Job” panel. (The Original Thinkers festival will be available virtually for the month of October. The Colorado Sun is a media sponsor of the event.)

The documentary consists mainly of interview footage of the Dalai Lama and Tutu, filmed when they spent a week together in 2015. That meeting was the basis for their 2016 book, “The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World.” 

When Boulder-based Psihoyos first watched the conversation, he said, “I felt myself physically and mentally changed. A lot of things snapped into place, and I thought this could be a really valuable film for everyone.” 

His involvement came by accident, he said, when he found himself at a dinner, sitting next to Doug Abrams, who co-wrote the book. When Psihoyos said he’d recently read the book, Abrams told him the interviews had been recorded and asked him to take a look at the footage. 

For Psihoyos, who won an Academy Award in 2010 for directing the documentary “The Cove,” about dolphin hunting, the transition to “Mission: Joy” was obvious. He founded the Oceanic Preservation Society and has worked to educate people about animal extinction. 

“If you’re trying to save the ocean, you have to change what’s going on on land. If you’re trying to change what’s going on on land, you need to change the way that people think about themselves and their place in the world,” he said. “For me it was a natural progression to try to go from saving the oceans to putting into perspective what’s important.” 

The conversation between the Dalai Lama and Tutu “just woke me up, in a way,” he said. 

He didn’t expect footage of two men sitting in a room talking to be engaging, but he found himself riveted. He attributed that to the comfort and obvious affection between the two leaders and the way they joked and laughed together.  

While a filmmaker’s instinct is to have fast-paced action and motion, this presented a different challenge: whittling down more than a dozen hours of conversation into a narrative. 

“We just had to get out of the way and let them speak as much as possible,” Psihoyos said. 

The documentary also includes animation to illustrate their childhoods, in part because Tutu’s early years weren’t well documented, he said. There is new footage of the Dalai Lama’s childhood, too, which Psihoyos credited co-director and producer Callahan with locating.  

Everyone has some family photos that aren’t well organized, stashed in a closet or an attic. Callahan, he said, “came back and said, ‘I found the box.’” That includes scenes of a family snowball fight and mountain climbing that haven’t been shared publicly before, he said. 

Choosing gems from the “strand of pearls” that the two leaders provided is difficult, but Psihoyos pointed to two that stand out for him in the documentary.  

“When the Dalai Lama says ‘wherever you find love, that’s your home,’ it still makes me sort of swell with tears, because it’s true,” he said. 

“When the archbishop says that we are not yet perfect, but we are a masterpiece in the making, I think that gives us all hope, not to judge ourselves by our pasts but to work towards a better version of ourselves in the future,” he said. “That’s very, very hopeful.”

The wisdom from two great spiritual leaders provides universal insight, even to those who aren’t religious, Psihoyos said. “The most valuable lesson is that there is a universal source of joy that humanity gets when you help others,” he said. “I feel it’s sort of chiropractic for the soul.” 

That’s a similar message Jones, who hasn’t seen the documentary yet, took away from the friendship between Tutu and the Dalai Lama as a teenager.  

“The fact that they can have this deep, wonderful, hilarious friendship” despite having such different backgrounds and beliefs is a model, she said. “Differences don’t have to be something to be scared of, they can bring us together.” 

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