TELLURIDE – Has Mountainfilm strayed from its adventure roots?
Not at all, said Festival Director David Holbrooke last week.
To illustrate, Holbrooke reeled off a partial list of big-name mountain people he is expecting to see in May. “I’ve been talking to [highliner and free climber] Dean Potter about coming, as well as Alex Honnold," whose electrifying solo on the face of Half Dome (Alone on the Wall) riveted Mountainfilm audiences in 2010.
“Conrad Anker introduced me to Chris Sharma, one of the greatest rock climbers in the world. Conrad said to Chris, ‘You should really come to Mountainfilm. It’s the most soulful thing around.’” Sharma will be speaking this year, along with renowned high-altitude mountaineer Steve House.
Holbrooke continued, overflowing, as is his nature: “Will Gadd [the protean Canadian ice climber] is coming back with a new 10-minute film. John Turk and Erik Boomer will be here to present a program about 104-day ski and kayak circumnavigation of Ellesmere Island.
“And we’ll be screening the world premier of Reznan Ozturk and Jimmy Chin’s House of Cards, about their summiting the Shark’s Fin with Conrad Anker.
“Conrad won’t be here this year because he’s on a National Geographic-sponsored trip to Everest,” with, among others, Telluride’s Hilaree O’Neill and filmmaker Cory Richards, whose movie Cold was a huge hit at last year’s festival and on every Mountainfilm tour date since.
“So, we really pay a lot of attention to who we are,” Holbrooke said. “It’s really important to me. Look at the program. There’s pure adventure in every [program] block.”
Mountainfilm used to be strictly about adventure. In its early years, beginning in 1979, the festival pattered itself on the venerable Trento mountain film festival. There were the Brits bashing their way down Dudh Kosi – Relentless River of Everest. There was genial genius Henry Barber pub-crawling with the locals and free-soloing Dream of White Horses in Wales.
But as the festival grew, the program perforce grew richer and more diverse. It wasn’t just the mountaineering anymore, it was the things the mountaineers saw out there and what moved them to give back. Sir Edmund Hillary was festival guest of honor in 1991, not only for his stature as the first to reach Everest’s summit, but also for his work building schools in impoverished Nepal. Wade Davis opened eyes to indigenous wisdom in South America and the far north. Captain Paul Watson brought his fierce defense of the oceans to 8,750 feet. Tim DeChristopher came twice, the second time between his trial in Salt Lake City and his sentencing to a Colorado prison, to share the very immediate drama of civil disobedience in a post-civil rights age.
“At our roots, our core,” said festival Executive Director Peter Kenworthy, “we are about mountains and adventure, but since the 1990s we have also been about – as the mission statement says – issues that matter.
“David’s first year here , we did the program on human trafficking, and it was incredibly well-received. We think our [expanded] audience is probably more interested in this kind of [programming] breadth, scope, diversity. Adventure is at the core. But that’s not the only thing we’re about any more. Hasn’t been for a long time.”
Holbrooke’s coming on board added a new dimension, several new dimensions. As a filmmaker himself, he brought contacts and sensibilities from an expanded world of documentaries. As the son of Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, he brought some of his father’s diplomatic and political connections to mini-urban Telluride.
Topics of the festival’s daylong Friday symposia have perhaps represented this evolution at its most stark and dramatic: Energy, Water, Food, Extinctions, Awareness in Action. This year it’s Population, “an overarching issue,” according to Kenworthy, “over all the others.”
Population has, of course, impacted the very nature of adventure – what it is and where it is to be found.
How do you structure such a huge topic? “I’ve struggled with it,” admitted Holbrooke. “But you start with Paul Ehrlich and go from there. He’s the big dog in this.” Ehrlich will be on the symposium panel. His seminal tome, The Population Bomb, from 1968, set the table for all future discussion of human population growth and the earth’s capacity to support it. (I heard Ehrlich speak at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1969, and came away thinking we were doomed even back then.)
“It’s a fitting topic for this year,” Holbrooke said, “with the world population going over the seven-billion mark.” (It was four billion in 1974.) The Moving Mountains Symposium will include, among a dozen or so panelists, Purnima Mane, former director of the United Nations Population Fund and now president and CEO of Pathfinder International, a public health organization dedicated to reproductive health, family planning, HIV/AIDS prevention and care, as well as women and girl’s empowerment; best-selling author Dan Buettner (The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer From the People Who Have Lived the Longest); and Dave Foreman, founder of Earth First! and author most recently of Manswarm and the Killing of Wildlife. NPR’s Alex Chadwick will moderate.
“It’s far from exhaustive,” Holbrooke said. “It would take a month-long symposium to cover it all. Our audience is so thirsty to understand this world better.”
Adding to the 2012 mix will be relatively recent Mountainfilm convert Ken Burns, who premiered his series on the national parks in Telluride in 2009. The great documentarian on America and Americans, Burns will this year premier his new film, The Dust Bowl, about one of the most profound manmade disasters in history, also described as a dark (literally) cautionary tale for our times.
It’s all of a piece, according to Holbrooke, “Mountainfilm people connect. The degrees of separation are nominal. The degrees of collaboration are what we’re all about – moving people to action. It is so cool.”
Mountainfilm’s very cool, up-to-the-moment, interactive website is: mountainfilm.org.