The 38th Telluride Film Festival

A Fine High Celebration Of Movies As Art

Photo by Lara Calloway

A group of us with some surprise received a warm personal welcome to the Telluride Film Festival from one of its co-directors, Gary Meyer, who then ushered us in to the intimate Le Pierre theatre for a special screening, just for us. No, we were not the press – Telluride gives no privileges to the news media. And for certain we were not wealthy donors, not even purchasers of the regular $780 pass – those happy folks were all gathering with the celebrities in the center of town for the big Opening Night Feed.

What we were was pass-holding Cinephiles. Three years ago Meyer and co-director Tom Luddy created the pass (and probably the word) for film lovers on a budget. In exchange for a $400 discount, we let the festival choose the menu of films we can see. It is a tasteful menu, heavy with restored or rediscovered masterpieces as well as the characteristic new works reflecting the Telluride philosophy of film as art. (Most of us would have been drawn to this menu even if we had the more expensive pass.)

While the Cinephile Pass was not a ticket to, say, the tribute to George Clooney or the personal appearances by Glenn Close, it did entitle us to see all the other Telluride medallion tributes: to Sight and Sound Magazine, to actress Tilda Swinton, to French actor-director Pierre Etaix. Plus, the menu emphasized  programs of short films by students and hopeful new directors and the selection of six favorite films presented by the “guest director” this year, Caetano Veloso.

Mark Cousins, right, at a book signing with Ken Burns.

Consistent with the Telluride philosophy, the special screening for us Cinephiles was the premier of the first two segments of “THE STORY OF FILM” by Mark Cousins, an eloquent writer whose 2006 book of the same title is becoming the preferred text in introductory film classes worldwide.

Telluride (as I have written) is a fine, high celebration of movies as art, and Cousins is a true and poetic exponent. In the introduction to the book, he stated a purpose that certainly resonates with the Telluride Film Festival as I have experienced it for going on 20 years. “By focusing on the innovative rather than the merely beautiful, popular or commercially successful, I am trying to strip the world of movies down to its engine. Innovation drives art…“ Just so, in the astonishing series (it has more than 1,000 film clips) we learn not only the basics of the inter-cut, the parallel cut, and the match cut, but who invented them, way back in the silent era.

As a filmmaker, Cousins is one of those Telluride discoveries (think: Michael Moore, Ken Burns). His charming documentary, “The First Movie,” premiered at Telluride last year. Cousins had taken a film crew to a Kurdish village so remote in Iraq that the children had never seen a movie. He set up an outdoor screen and showed them “E.T.” Then he filmed the kids themselves and screened the result. Finally he handed out video cameras and told the kids to go out and make their own movies. The results were both entertaining and enlightening. The children, for example, came back with narrations of something nobody talked about in person – the genocidal gas attacks by Saddam Hussein. Like “The Story of Film” his first full-length film is a testament to his love and understanding of movies not only as art but as a refuge.

“Story” has 15 segments, which will be serialized this fall by the BBC. While at Telluride, Cousins was invited to the Toronto Film Festival, which planned to screen it in two days, seven hours and eight hours. Cousins autographed my copy of the book with the words, “in cinephile friendship.”

Among the other new films premiering at Telluride, I got to see two stinging documentaries on global crises – “The Island President” and Micha X. Peled’s “Bitter Seeds” – two love stories – “Bonsai” from Chile, “Goodbye First Love” from France – David Cronenberg’s “Dangerous Method” about Jung, Freud and a problematic woman, two lost-boy films – “Le Havre” from Finland, “The Way Home” from India – and two comedies – “Butter” from Hollywood and “Footnote” from Israel.

Myself, waiting to see “Bitter Seeds” Photo by Lara

“THE ISLAND PRESIDENT” is about The Maldives, a nation of 300,000 people living on 200 flat islands in a chain of atolls in the Indian Ocean. Mohamed Nasheed came to power in a popular uprising against the 30-year dictatorship of Maumoon Gayooma. Nasheen had been jailed, tortured and exiled, but he returned and defeated Gayooma in a surprisingly fair election in 2008. This is interesting enough, but the theme of the film is the probability that this scattered nation will be destroyed by global warming. As the polar ice melts, the oceans rise. The film establishes an intercut rhythm of eroding shores and gloomy music.

Director-cinematographer Jon Shenk told the Telluride audience at the screening I saw that he was drawn to the project when he heard of the young, charismatic president of a Muslim nation who seemed to represent a new political generation – and, he noted, this was before the Arab Spring was ever imagined. Shenk said his first meeting with Nasheed, after months of negotiation, ran five minutes before the decisive young president said, “OK. I’ve got to trust you.” The cameras subsequently followed him for the next 18 months.

It was a dramatic time, climaxing with the UN’s Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009. The summit was widely reported as a failure because the rich nations failed to adopt a standard for reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere. Activists and some scientists say a return to 350 parts per million is the only way to arrest catastrophic climate change. The film makes the case, however, that the entire Copenhagen exercise would have collapsed without the skillful political work of Nasheed.

There are skeptics who say The Maldives are profiting from Western guilt and that the island nation is not in peril. But the character of Nasheed, reflected in many candid moments as well as formal appearances, earned my trust. He comes across as an intelligent politician who is both skilful and honest, a rarity in democratic politics, particularly in America. Well advised presidential candidates remember Jimmy Carter’s fatal “malaise” speech to the nation in the midst of the Arab oil embargo. He foresaw the global problems caused by our unrestrained appetite for oil and declared conservation as a moral duty. It was the perfect setup for Ronald Reagan’s winning “It’s Morning in America” theme.

“BITTER SEEDS” is the final film in the Globalization Trilogy, which began with “Store Wars” about Wal-Mart’s overwhelming effect on small retail businesses and continued with “China Blue” about jeans sweatshops. This third one, completed only a few days before its premier showing at Telluride, is about the exploitive marketing of Monsanto seeds among illiterate  traditional village farmers in India. With this film, the story of a global trade circuit is complete: Indian cotton goes to China, Chinese garments go to Walmart.

Peled told the Telluride audience that he was drawn to the rural Maharashtra region by the potential story line: the state is the location of a cluster of suicides by thousands of desperate farmers – heads of traditional families facing hopeless debt due to their inexperience with the systematic use of genetically modified (GM) seeds. The film documents the manipulative and often false marketing by retailers of Monsanto’s globally patented BT Cotton. In one TV ad a proud father drives up on a shiny new motor scooter. He tells his adoring wife and children, “No more bicycle.” And it’s all due to the high yield of BT Cotton! The film follows salesmen parading through a village proclaiming the wonders of this new seed and handing out photos and phone numbers of farmers enriched by the product. All but one of the numbers on one handbill are disconnected, and that one belongs to an apparent retailer shill.

GM seeds, among other things, are constructed to resist herbicides like Roundup, but the cotton farmers in the film weed their several-acres plots by hand. The merchandising promises resistance to certain pests like the boll weevil, but expensive pesticides are required for others like the mealy worm. GM seeds are engineered for high yields, but the system requires costly chemical fertilizers. And it requires a strict schedule of irrigation, but farmers in India depend upon rain.

For thousands of years, a very old man explains, villagers saved seeds at each harvest, planted them in the spring and fertilized with manure from livestock. They did not need to buy anything. Now, trusting the new technology, they take loans to buy the seeds, the pesticides and the nitrates. If the promised yields prove false or the rain is late (climate change, again), or new pests arrive, they go into a debt spiral that ends with a usurious money lender owning their land. (With the debtor dead, the outlawed money lenders have trouble enforcing his thumb-printed mortgage.)

This is the case made by Peled, yet it’s in the background along with the hook of the film: the thousands who have killed themselves. Any story needs a heart, a protagonist. It took months of searching and tryouts until Peled found her: a college-age journalism student whose father drank the poisonous pesticide for which he had gone into debt in a bad year. The camera follows her as she talks to people on both sides of the problem: farmers, retailers, family, orphaned survivors and the brilliant farmers rights advocate, Vandana Shiva. Monsanto as usual would not consent to any interview.

The retailers questioned by the journalism student used the defense of multiple causation, as did Monsanto in a prepared statement. This, however, is no ethno-film, and so the argument is unsubstantiated. The film is too polemical to be an objective study of the culture. It does, however, depict the results of one very heavy tradition of the rural Indian way of life: marriage dowries. Families negotiate the marriages of their daughters based upon what can be paid to the groom’s family. The payments in land, livestock, gold or  cash are huge, and inability to marry off daughters in order of birth is a source of deep shame. The debts from industrialized farming are interwoven with dowries.

In the screening I attended at the Nugget theatre, Peled was joined by Alice Walters, the famous Berkeley restaurateur, who was in Telluride to sign advance copies of her new book, “40 years of Chez Panisse.” She made an impassioned plea for natural food as opposed to the “manufacturing” represented by Monsanto. She argued, as she did in a Telluride publication, “On a local level, we simply have to go to the farmer’s market. We have to get to know the farmers, get out and understand what is happening in the fields, because if we don’t champion the farmers and the land, we’re doomed.”

But is this the answer to the global crisis (famine, grain shortages, spiraling retail costs)? In the Q & A, a hesitant voice rose from the enthused audience that had been pitching supportive softball questions to Peled. It was a blonde woman with a Midwest accent who identified herself as a mother of three young children and a former employee of Monsanto. She stood and said that the problems brought up by the movie were a source of constant discussion among executives at the St. Louis-headquartered company. Peled invited her to the microphone, inviting her to show the film to her former colleagues. She continued with arguments based on the needs to feed the rapidly growing population of the planet and to reduce pesticides. “Agriculture is going through the equivalent of the Industrial Revolution,” she said, and with reference to early fears of automation added: “You can’t stop robots.” Afterwards I asked her name – Katherine Kassim – and judged that she was not a Monsanto plant (so to speak).

I wondered what the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz (a favorite of Barack Obama) would have said if he were interviewed in this film. He did field work among rice growers in several villages in Indonesia and marveled at the way they treated paddies like greenhouse tanks, doing everything by hand with simple tools. “Hordes of laborers drawn from the enormous rural population work with extreme care and thoroughness,” he wrote.  Technology, even then (1960’s), could enable 10 per cent of the workers to produce as much rice.  But then: what of the  other 90 per cent? Work elsewhere? There is no elsewhere. They would starve, Geertz observes.  “The twin aims of agrarian reform — technological progress and improved social welfare — pull very strongly agains one another; and the more deeply one goes into the problem, the more apparent this unpleasant fact becomes.” he wrote  (“Available Light,” Ch. 2).

“GOODBYE FIRST LOVE” by the young French director Mia Hansen-L0ve (the zero is her spelling) is a simple story of nostalgia and unbearable attachment. At age 15, Camille falls in love with a manly college student named Sullivan. They enjoy their sexuality every chance they get, in secret trysts at her parents’ Paris home or their country estate. Then Sullivan drops out of school to see the world. Camille yearns for him suicidally. His letters become infrequent, then stop. Four years later she is a successful architect living with the divorced older man who heads the firm. Sullivan shows up. He has not changed, and he is the wrong man. But. . .

What stuck with me was the camera work. There are few static shots, yet this is not the annoying product of hand-held cameras. The actors, beautiful and young, are constantly in motion, walking, running, rolling in the grass, jumping into bed – and the camera follows smoothly. This induces energy, the energy of youth. And I will remember the film with a profound longing for it.

“BONSAI” is another story of love and memory – from Chile. It is literary. Director Cristian Jimenez told us, “words are important.” A young couple comes together with a discussion of Proust, which neither has read. There are complications. The story jumps back and forth between now and eight years from now. I bought the slim novel on which the story is based, hoping to understand what exactly goes on in this movie.

“A DANGEROUS METHOD” stars Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, Viggo Mortenson as Sigmund Freud and Keira Knightley as the patient who knew both men and had an explosive love affair with Jung. I told two Jungian analysts waiting in a line for another movie that Jung had an ethical problem (sex with someone under his care). They shrugged. The ethical is cultural. I have not read John Kerr’s book from which the film is adapted, but the story of the intellectual conflict between the founder of psychoanalysis and his young colleague and the character of the patient, Sabina Spielrein, is often told elsewhere. There is a foundation for the tendency of  mainstream psychological movies to reduce everything to sexuality. So did Freud. And that is why Jung broke from him, as is depicted in this film by a director and actors at the top of their careers.

The two comedies, “BUTTER” and “FOOTNOTE,” are delightful satires. The first (a sneak preview and not technically on the Telluride program) does for Iowa what the Cohen Brothers did for Minnesota. At the Iowa State Fair, I was told, there actually is a big butter sculpting competition. In this story a ruthless housewife does whatever it takes (sex, again) to defeat her unlikely competitor. The film, which will be released soon, helps me in my resolve not to take the Iowa Republican caucuses seriously.

The second was described to us by its Israeli writer-director, Joseph Cedar, as “the greatest Talmudic scholarship comedy. . . made in Israel. . . this year.” That says it. It’s thoughtful and fun.