The Telluride Film Festival is a miracle that happens once a year over the Labor Day weekend in a small town in a box canyon of the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado.
A high school gymnasium, a Masons hall, a banquet hall, the town park are transformed into state-of-the-art screening venues where a 15-hour history of the cinema by Mark Cousins is given equal billing with The Descendants, the most recent film by Alexander Payne starring George Clooney, who was in attendance.
Each screening at Telluride is labeled with the folksy euphemism of "show" but the best way to summarize the 2011 festival is "risk." That risk is showing films with subjects we might not particularly want to see. Bela Tarr's Turin Horse, shown in its North American premiere, is about the end of the world. A father, daughter and a horse, isolated in a primitive house on the unceasingly windy Hungarian plain struggle to survive on a diet of boiled potatoes as the well runs dry, a neighbor shows up to buy homemade liquor and deliver a stunning damnation of how our future was stolen from us, and passing gypsies threaten retribution.
Werner Herzog, in his new documentary, Into The Abyss, focuses on two friends who, when teenagers, committed horrific crimes. Both are in prison, one is on death row with 8 days to go to his execution. In his personal introduction, Herzog clearly stated his unequivocal opposition to the death penalty, but the film is about much else: the empty, violence and drug-ridden life of a small Texas town, about broken families, psychotic behavior, and the impossibility of redemption in this all-American climate of crime and punishment which offers no other dynamics.
Steve McQueen, the acclaimed British artist whose first feature film Hunger portrayed the Bobby Sands hunger strike at Ireland's Maze prison in uncompromising detail, turned his attention to sex addiction in Shame, his second feature which premiered at Telluride. The uneasy and unsettling film offers no psychological crutches or explanations to the audience. Instead, in a formal and almost architecturally nuanced structure, it portrays Brandon, brilliantly portrayed by Michael Fassbender, as a 30-something New Yorker working in a high-pressure corporate culture. Carey Mulligan stars as his dysfunctional sister. Though audiences will get stuck on the excessive sex scenes and nudity, Shame is about deeper issues: the objectification of women, about unresolved sibling relationships, about the impossibility of an individual to forge an emotional connection, or to face himself.
Agnieszka Holland's In Darkness is a two and a half hour descent into the sewers of wartime Lodz. It's the story of a small time operator who progresses from exploiting Jews in the Lodz ghetto as it is being destroyed to saving a group of them in the city sewers. The film is fast-paced and almost physical in its depiction of the brutal reality of survival, with strong acting performances.
Every year, the Telluride Film Festival has a guest curator who selects, introduces and leads discussions on six films. This year, the guest curator was Brazilian musician, writer and filmmaker Caetano Veloso. One of his selections was the 1964 Brazilian classic film, Black God, White Devil. Made when Rocha was just 25, the film amazes even today for its boldness and energy. Set in the Brazilian backlands, its central character is a ranch hand who becomes an outlaw and joins a self-proclaimed saint. Filled with mysticism, symbols, political references and authentic music, Black God, White Devil is stark and shocking in its juxtaposition of images - its intent is nothing short of re-inventing cinema and creating a revolution.
Milos Stehlik is the director of Facets Multimedia and Worldview's film contributor.