This year’s Mountainfilm festival, which kicks off Friday and runs through the weekend, may be the best yet.
Perhaps that’s a hard statement to back up, after all, it’s fair to assume that the Telluride, Colorado festival focused on showcasing the “indomitable spirit” in mountain culture, the environment, and human rights issues has been impressive for each of its previous 36 years. But when we consider this year’s film lineup (Meru, Racing Extinction, Frame by Frame, Unbranded, The Diplomat, Valley Uprising, Down to Nothing, and more), the number of incredible special guests (Fawzia Koofi, Sebastian Junger, Dan Buettner, Jimmy Chin, Conrad Anker, Cheryl Strayed, Tommy Caldwell, David Lama, and more), and the chance to discuss the complex world events impacting our community (the earthquake in Nepal, the avalanche at Base Camp on Mount Everest, and the untimely death of Dean Potter, and more), the festival is happening just at a time when need it.
“We always try to be at the leading edge and do things that are new and innovative,” says Festival Director David Holbrooke. “We’re also trying to encourage our community of artists, filmmakers, and creatives to be inspired by the festival and by Telluride itself.”
We spoke with Holbrooke about the weekend’s ideas, films, and events.
Mountainfilm has a long history of being disruptive. How do you all plan to knock people over this year?
The big idea this year is the same as it always is: Get people involved and excited about making a difference in the world. That’s so important to us, and we feel that our programming keeps on coming back to that: What are you going to do?
If you look at what Mountainfilm cares about—the environment, mountain culture, extinction. All of these things are really at critical junctures. We want to know how the Mountainfilm community is going to get involved? What are they going to do? That is what I always want to come back to. I want people to be entertained. I want them to have a good time. But most of all, I want them to be inspired to take action.
What are some standouts in the film lineup?
I always think of our pillars as climbing, outdoor adventure, environment, and human rights. We have our best mountaineering program, from a film perspective, that we’ve had in my time here. It includes Meru, Valley Uprising, Metanoia, and Cerro Torre. It’s a killer lineup. Then we’ve got Drawn with Jeremy Collins. Then there’s Down to Nothing about the Nat Geo Burma expedition. You’re gonna be like, “Holy sh–!” It’s intense, for sure. We’ve never seen a climbing film quite like that one. We’ve got A Line Across The Sky with Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold. It goes on and on.
We’ve got great environmental programming, too. Pshihoyos’s film Racing Extinction will be at the festival, and How To Change The World, a film about Greenpeace.
For he human rights programs, we’ve got really serious films like Madina’s Dream, about a child of Sudan, Sebastian Junger’s The Last Patrol, which is looking at reintegrating into the United States after being at war, as a journalist, as a soldier.
You’re screening your documentary The Diplomat, about your father, Richard Holbrooke. Are you nervous to be among the filmmakers this year?
I am, I am. Showing a film that I’ve been working on for the last few years here where I live in Telluride, yeah, it’s really nerve-racking. We premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, and we also played in San Francisco Film Festival—the film was really well received. I’m proud of the film; it’s a film I wanted to make. But showing it to a hometown crowd’s gonna be different for sure. It’s funny, people I don’t even know come up to me on the street and say, “I’ve been reading all about your film!” I say, “OK, well, come see it at Mountainfilm.”
My last films was called Hard As Nails, about a preacher that we followed around for a while. It premiered at Tribeca, played here, and aired on HBO in 2007. This new film is obviously a much different instrument. It’s personal—my father and his life. But again, part of what I hoped to do with The Diplomatic is to show that he inspired people. I hope the film inspires people to get engaged in the world around them and helps people understand the world we live in.
We lost a dear friend a couple days ago, Dean Potter. As the outdoor community gathers, will honoring his memory be part of the festival?
Like everything he did, Dean played an outsize role in Mountainfilm. When he died, I started thinking about all the films we’d screened that he was featured in just my time as Festival Director here, and I kept on coming up with more as the day went on. There was Man vs. Eiger, Race for the Nose, Yosemite High Line, Moonwalk, and of course, Valley Uprising, which he stars in and it captures his spirit so perfectly. And then there is When Dogs Fly, which he directed, and we premiered in Telluride last May. The film is so quintessentially Dean—odd and awkward in certain ways, yet also endearing and completely out of the box.
Naturally, what most stands out for me last year was his incredibly bold flyover our town in a wingsuit, and a lot of people still tell me that was the coolest thing they ever saw at Mountainfilm. But for all the public stuff he did that people know about, there is so much more they should. Like him coming by the local kid’s climbing program to belay and climb and hang out with the young ones who so looked up to him. That memory of him will certainly endure in my mind.
We will miss you, Dean, and will do our best to honor you here with an extended conversation after our Sunday screening of Valley Uprising, as well as some other opportunities that we are still working on for this weekend.
Another heavy topic: How will the festival address the situation in Nepal, especially in light of your recent partnership with the dZi Foundation?
Our partnership with dZi Foundation was set long before the earthquake happened. I went over to Nepal in March to see their work firsthand. While we were there, we kept being told about the potential for an earthquake. We’d be in these villages, and the locals would say, “Look, we built this school to earthquake standards.” It’s an 80-year cycle on earthquakes, and the last major earthquake in Nepal was 1934.
We were over at the house of Ben Ayres, dZi’s Country Director for Nepal. He had these huge tubs in his yard that looked like hot tubs. When I asked what they were, he said, “It’s a water tank.” Because he worked with the Embassy, he said he had to have extra water on his property because when the earthquake hit, water can be a huge issue.
Sure enough, a month after we left, bam, it happened. My wife, Sarah, and I have been wrestling with it a lot. I wonder how that family we stayed with is doing, and how that little kid that we played with is doing. There are a couple of blessings, like the earthquake hit on Saturday at noontime, so kids weren’t in school and people tended to be outside. If it had hit at night or during the week, the deaths would have been exponentially larger. Still it’s a lousy silver lining.
Will there be a panel or programming around Nepal at the festival?
Yeah, we were doing programming with dZi anyway because they have a really unique model for being on the ground. Nepal gets a ton of attention because of Everest, and the trekking routes where the big mountains are will see 40,000 trekkers a year. But where dZi goes, nobody goes. A big thing that we heard from villagers was that dZi is the only foundation that shows up. Their work is so remote and off the beaten path. And their mission hasn’t really changed; they’re still working with baseline health needs.
But there’s a Western aid sensibility that’s like, oh, let’s concoct a plan in New York, or Seattle, or L.A., and bring it over to Nepal, or wherever. dZi does the opposite thing. They go over to Nepal and say, “Hey, what do you folks need?” Then you realize that the biggest issue is diarrhea because they’ve been using unsanitary toilets. So, dZi built toilets. It’s not glamorous work, but it’s essential to health. Their real focus is on baseline health needs of which there is a ton need now.
Now shelter’s a huge issue. There’s all this energy in the U.S. from people who want to help, which is terrific. But Katmandu has one airport with one runway and only so much can get in there. dZi is really focusing on what can they do from Nepal. They understand that the process really matters to get people help as quickly as possible. The idea of saying, “Oh, let’s just have people send money and send stuff,” it just can’t get there. It’s just not going to work.
How will the festival explore the topic of Everest this year?
We’re doing a Coffee Talk called, “Everest, Once Again.” In 2013, we looked at “the fight” between the climbers Simone Moro and Ueli Steck and the Nepali mountain workers, and that was crazy. Then in 2014 was the avalanche that killed the 16 Nepalis. Now in 2015, it’s the earthquake and avalanche at Everest Base Camp. Each year, it’s worse.
And what’s interesting for us is there are people who would otherwise be on Everest during the festival who are instead going to be in Telluride. Longtime Everest guide Dave Hahn, will be here. As will David Morton, a climber and co-founder of the Juniper Fund. Those guys are all coming because … what else are they gonna do? We’ll have Ben Ayres, with dZi and is based in Nepal. We will have a lot of people who will be able to tell us what really went down from the avalanche. Longtime guide Dave Hahn can tell us his experience up on the mountain, at Camp 2, when the avalanche came—which may have been better than being in Base Camp. It’s so hard to understand all the different layers. We will have people who were there and can explain what happened when the ground started to shake.
We always have these complaints–which is a complaint I love—which is, there’s so much good stuff I can’t decide which thing to go to. That’s who we are.
Why Afghanistan for the symposium topic? What are the range of presenters?
We decided to look at Afghanistan because Afghanistan matters in a way geopolitically, that few countries do. It’s a mountain culture, which is so important to us here in Telluride. I also traveled there to make The Diplomat, so I had a different understanding of it than I would of, say, other countries that we might be interested in. The look we’re trying to provide of Afghanistan is 360 degrees, to some extent. We can’t cover everything, but we’re trying to look at it from a political and military perspective, but also its culture, its art, its women’s rights to give people a deeper, richer understanding of Afghanistan.
Are there many Afghani people who will attend Mountainfilm?
Yes. Absolutely, so we have a woman named, Fawzia Koofi, who is a leading Afghan politician. She’s very impressive in a variety of ways. We’ll have two photographers, Massoud Hosseini and Farzana Wahidy, who are featured in the film Frame By Frame. Massoud won a Pulitzer for a photograph he took in 2012. Farzana’s a woman who’s been photographing a lot of women and other issues. We’ll have somebody who’s coming to kite fly.
Who are some of this year’s special guest?
It’s an impressive crew for sure. I’d love for you to highlight Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner. She’s such a badass. Here’s one of the strongest women out there and people just don’t know about her and they should. Gerlinde, Tommy Caldwell, of course, which is great. We’ll screen Higher in Town Park on Wednesday. Jeremy Jones is such a great synthesis of who we are as a community of adventurers, but also activists, people who really care about what’s happening to the Earth. Jeremy has been so out front on that. Dan Buettner, such a good guy. The author, John Valliant, who’s lovely and so smart. Also Mara Grunbaum, is a writer who’s written this blog called WTF, Evolution. Her book’s terrific and she’s impressive. We’re going to screen A Line Across the Sky and a presentation, talking about Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold’s Fitz Traverse experience.
I think it’s really important that this is a community of people, as Jim Whittaker said, “If you’ve not been on the edge, you’re taking up too much room.” These are people who believe that and lived that. When they get together, one of the things that’s so important is how much they inspire each other and start collaborating. That is invaluable.
We offer many free things events—screening in the park, Coffee Talks, gallery walks, the Reading Frenzy. A lot of people in our audience, who are affectionately call dirt bags, will appreciate all the free programming that we’re doing, including the The Moth storytelling, which will be a free event at the gondola on Sunday.
Tell us about turning the lights out in town?
We’re going to call it Dark Sky Telluride. We were approached by filmmaker Ben Canales, who was here last year. He wandered around at night to take these beautiful photos of Telluride. He was so struck by how beautiful the town was, he said, “These photos would be more amazing if we could get the town to turn off the lights, what do you think?” So we decided to try it. The town said they didn’t want people walking home in the dark while bars are open, until 2 a.m. So we’ll have it at 4 a.m.
We were just approached an amateur but serious astronomer, and he’ll be doing star talks at four in the morning. He said, “Hey, I heard about the Dark Sky thing. I want to be part of it.” We’ll see how it works.
For people new to Telluride, what would you recommend to get outside?
If you’ve got a limited amount of time walk up to Bear Creek, an hour and a half or so, and you’ll walk into this amazing forest and you get up to a 75-foot waterfall. You don’t need a car. You don’t need anything but your legs. It’s so beautiful and it’s not easy; it’s uphill and it’s just a perfect hike in so many ways.
There’s a lot of options, which we call free-range programming. We’ll have stand-up paddle boarding in the alpine at Trout Lake, guided hikes, and the dark sky event, and all kinds of cool stuff we think people will really enjoy doing. We will celebrate the outdoors. That’s always been a big part of the festival. Obviously we want people in theatres, we want to be sure theaters are full. But we also want people to say, “I don’t have to go to a movie now, I should get up to Bear Creek or do a Jud Wiebe hike or go for a mountain bike ride. Go climbing. It’s all here.