By Milos Stehlik
At the elevation of almost 9,000 feet, the town of Telluride, Colorado is in thin air. The 44th Telluride Film Festival, which concluded on Labor Day, succeeded in the near-impossible – creating a great festival out of the thin air which has marked international film production so far this year.
Both Berlin and Cannes Film Festivals — two of the world’s largest – held in February and May, had lackluster years. So Telluride had to dig deep to come up with a program which was, in some ways, a reflection of the state of the world.
The Festival’s big opening night film was Angelina Jolie’s First They Killed My Father, the tragic story of Loung Ung, who was a little girl when her family were killed by the Khmer Rouge. The logistically-complex film (many extras, remote locations, cultural differences, large-scale battle scenes) was shot entirely in Cambodia. It’s a country to which Jolie is deeply committed. Maddox, one of her children whom Jolie adopted when he was a baby in an orphanage, worked on the film.
This is Jolie’s fourth film as a director, and certainly her best. Yet it’s always difficult to separate celebrity from art. In person, Jolie comes across as very down-to-earth, pragmatic, concerned with the fate of Cambodia and with others. Yet the celebrity element is never far away. On my return from Telluride, the New York Times had the big scoop that Jolie implied in an interview that working on the film in Cambodia altered her relationship with Brad Pitt – this was promoted as a big scoop.
Another hotly-awaited film was Downsizing, directed by Alexander Payne. The film has a crazy premise. As the world is running out of food, a Swedish scientist solves the problem of overpopulation by shrinking people to an infinitesimal size and then settling them in planned communities where they can live happily ever after. The film may be somewhat on the long side for some, but it is funny, and not without social critique. Scenes of the physical preparation of the subjects for being shrunk are reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps and the film enters darker territory when we discover there are also the have-nots – mostly immigrants – who live outside the dream planned community and do the cleaning and the dirty work. Matt Damon stars as Paul Safranek, the Capra-esque everyman of Payne’s feature, but Payne is masterful at getting character-actor performances from Udo Kier as a ships’ captain, and especially a tour-de-force from Hong Chaz as a dissident Vietnamese refugee. The quirkiness with Payne demonstrated in his Nebraska is ramped up here with a dark, ironic political context.
In recent years, Telluride has elevated its profile as a festival which has the touch in screening films which go on to win major awards and Oscars with premieres of films like Slumdog Milionaire, Argo, or last year’s Moonlight. This year’s Oscar buzz focused on Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour, Steve Carrell and Emma Stone in Battle of the Sexes, the story of the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, or The Shape of Water, the love story between a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) and an aquatic humanoid creature, directed by Guillermo del Toro, Many Telluride attendees also liked Annette Benning’s portrayal of Gloria Grahame and her affair with a younger actor (played by Jamie Bell) in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool. Greta Gerwig also got a big awards buzz from her first feature as director, Lady Bird – I only saw the first half, bored by its TV-ish cuteness in the insipid crisis of “Lady Bird,” a senior at Sacramento High School.
For me, and for the “seasoned” Telluride attendees who make it every year (Anita and Prabha Sinha, Paul Lehman and Rona Stamm, Linda and Peter Bynoe are among the faithful Chicagoans) the Telluride Film Festival is about almost none of these films, most of which will be in theatres in the fall.
Instead, I saw for the first time and loved the Israeli film Foxtrot, directed by Samuel Maoz, which starts as a family is delivered the news of the death of their son who is in the Israeli Army. Without giving the plot away, the film shifts to the the son’s lonely Army outpost, where he, and a group of other soldiers living in a container, guard a lonely stretch of road with almost no traffic. The film, highly controversial in Israel and recently denounced by the Israeli Minister of Culture (who had not actually seen it), portrays the absurdity of the soldiers’ situation, but I think is more universal, in showing that absurdity for all soldiers, in all military actions. It’s the Catch-22 of our time.
The Insult, a Lebanese film by Ziad Doueri, starts with a simple premise: a Lebanese Christian mechanic gets into an altercation with the Palestinian foreman of a building construction project next to his house. Neither Tony, the mechanic, nor Yasser, the foreman will give way and the argument quickly expands and then explodes into a courtroom drama which pits a prominent prosecutor against a young lawyer who also happens to be his daughter. The film is a personal drama, but it has huge political dimensions, not only in the traumatic story of the Lebanese Civil War, but in the failure of a reconciliation which would provide a unified road forward.
The Man of Integrity, directed by Mohammad Rasoulof, is nothing short of a miracle. Rasoulof, was sentenced to six years in prison for making a film without a permit, along with his colleague and friend, filmmaker Jafar Panahi. The sentence for both has not been carried out. I did an on-stage interview at Telluride with Rasoulof in 2013, after he had made Manuscripts Don’t Burn. This film, like Man of Integrity, was shot in Iran clandestinely and without permission. At the time, Rasoulof told me that he thought the political situation in Iran had stabilized, and that, after settling his family in Hamburg, he was going back. On his return, the authorities took away his passport, preventing his leaving. Getting the passport returned to him took a year.
Man of Integrity, set in the countryside of north Iran, also starts from a small incident. Reza, a farmer who raises goldfish, lives with his wife, the headmistress at a girls’ school. The town where they live is a “company” town, and soon Reza gets into conflict with the company foreman. Because Reza refuses to compromise, this situation escalates, with devastating repercussions on his family, but revealing, in its wake, the systemic corruption in Iran, and the collusion between the hidden “powers” and the law. The political implications of Man of Integrity are both specific and classic, taking on, among other topical themes, the oppression of the Bahai minority in Iran, restrictions on free speech, and the power of the Red Guards.
Such dark themes informed other films at Telluride: the astonishing Russian film Loveless by Andrei Zvyagintsev, which similarly probes the ineffectuality of the Russian state and its collusion with the Orthodox Church in the powerful story of a divorcing couple whose child (which neither parent wants) disappears, or the shocking documentary Venerable W., directed by Barbet Schroeder, which follows the Burmese Buddhist monk who agitates against the Rohinga Muslim minority, creating genocide. Former Vice-President Al Gore came to Telluride to show the second in his environmental disaster films, An Inconvenient Sequel, outside, in the town park, and Natalie Portman joined Alice Waters in introducing a documentary she produced and narrated, Eating Animals, which goes undercover to factory farms and slaughterhouses to reveal the horrors of animal agriculture.
Movies are, and always have been, a reflection of the state of the world. The fact that so many of the world’s great filmmakers take on such tough themes shows the fragility of the ethical and moral construct of our society, serving as a warning: we may not have reached the apocalypse, but the cliff on which we stand shows serious signs of fracture unless we do something.
The Telluride Film Festival always reserves a few slots for films from the silent era. This year, the Festival screened a reconstruction of a very rare 1929 erman-Czech feature made toward the end of the silent era, Such Is Life. The only film for which its director, Carl Junghans is known, the film is almost purely visual, contains no intertitles, and is the story of a washerwoman with an alcoholic husband who falls for a bar girl. It is far ahead of its time in visual style and experimentation. Junghans himself had a colorful career as a Soviet sympathizer, possible Nazi spy, informant for the FBI, photographer and gardener in the U.S., which could make a film in itself.
Many of the White Russians who escaped from the Soviet Union settled in Paris, where a number, Alexandre Volkoff among them, became active in the film industry. Volkoff’s film, Keane, is the biopic of famed 19th century British Shakespearean actor Edmund Keane, who was as eccentric in personal life as he was brilliant on the stage. According to the film, at least, his Shakespearean acting came to an end when he collapsed on stage, suffering madness as a result of an unrequited love affair. One doesn’t necessarily look at this film for historical accuracy. With a live musical accompaniment by the Mont Alto Orchestra, and introduced by Eastman House curator and co-director of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy, Paolo Cherchi Usai, this presentation of Keane, in 35mm, was also astonishing for the quality of its restoration. Those very few of us who have the memory of seeing a film projected from nitrate film stock – the highly flammable film which was replaced by celluloid-based “safety” film – know what we have lost when nitrate film was discontinued. The shimmering black and white and colors (yes, the film was tinted throughout) are something celluloid, let alone digital projection, never equal. It’s a transcendent experience which, like Telluride, with its high altitude and low oxygen, takes your breath away.
(Editor’s Note: Milos Stehlik is the Founder and Artistic Director of Facets which for 41 years has harnessed the power of film to change lives and thus change the world. Facets hosts year-round educational programs and the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, the most celebrated children’s film festival in North America. For further information call 773-281-9075, ext. 3052 or visit facets.org)