In the current crop of gigantic, mass-produced Hollywood spectacles that we are now engorged with, cynical beings blurt out clipped one-liners about the free world being at risk, with the grim recognition that only a superhero can save humanity. Yet not one real thing is ever at stake and not one thing is ever saved. To come to Telluride is to realize that everything is at stake. There is so much that needs to be saved, and it is actually possible to save the people and the things we care about. That is the definition of film.
Here I am in the former Soviet Union, ensconced in the wild, wild east of Perm, Russia, the cultural outpost that echoes through Chekov’s Three Sisters and haunts Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago. At this moment as Americans wonder, “What’s the problem if my shopping habits are being monitored?”— the films at Telluride remind us of the high-stakes endgame of a surveillance state. We are stepping towards the edge of a cliff extremely well known to people in other parts of the world, some of whom have fought with their last ounce of strength against totalizing regimes. Mohammed Rasoulof has done battle with the bloated dragon of Iran’s bureaucracy, which, month by month, year by year, ratchets up its levels of oppression. The astonishing thing is to watch Rasoulof ratchet up his own courage and level of resistance to meet the regime’s rising tide of violence and intolerance with films that are more and more reckless, exacting, and exact. He is determined to look the beast directly in the eye and not flinch, not cringe, and not step back one inch.
Manuscripts Don’t Burn, a film having its American premiere at Telluride, comes at an important moment for Iran but also for America. In a David-and-Goliath takedown, Rasoulof unmasks the omnipotent security state as a pathetic fallacy. Unlike the taut, highly plotted, glamorously slick and resoundingly evil depictions of the high-level security apparatus that we see in big-budget vehicles, Rasoulof shows us that the people who are in charge of sifting through our lives are confused, dispirited, lost, and panicking. We watch tough but clumsy security apparatchiks terrorizing elderly poets, and a series of bungled and brutal attempts to instill fear and sustain paranoia are undermined by human ineptitude and frailty. In Manuscripts Don’t Burn, the instruments of torture are not high tech, futuristic or elaborate schemes of cyber warfare, but plastic bags, garden shears and sheer human cruelty. Rasoulof shows the randomness, the happenstance, the crossed wires and the ruinous improvisation that lie behind the illusion of the all-powerful security state.
Another unexpected treasure of Iranian cinema this year comes from Mitra Farahani, whose Fifi Howls From Happiness is a wild, hilarious, finely spun documentary about the legendary and elusive artist Bahman Mohassess. Already a prominent Iranian artist in the time of the Shah, Mohassess was praised by and circulated in the highest official circles while retaining his own unpredictably dangerous edge of independence. His paintings and sculptures were of figurative forms, but abstracted without faces, hands or feet, because he felt that the people around him were all somewhat less than human.
Sometime after the Islamic revolution, Mohassess disappeared from Iran. The work also began to vanish. No one knew where he was, or, in fact, if he was dead or alive. Farhani tracked him down to a hotel room in Rome, where he was living out the final years of a public life in retreat and self-erasure, systematically destroying his surviving work and cheerfully, pointedly preparing himself for death. Farahani enters his life with her camera for this final act. Her film becomes his last testament, throw of the dice, comedy masquerade and message to the ages. It is punctuated with his sharp, tasty, urbane, unrestrained and highly varnished observations, uttered through appalling gusts of bronchial and seismic laughter. In spite of his hoarse death rattle, he refuses to surrender either his joie de vivre or his independence as he asks for another cigarette.
With Farahani’s subtle, respectful but also independently minded collusion, Mohassess makes the final gesture of a life filled with refined and resistant gestures. Fifi Howls From Happiness is one of the rare moments when a film about an artist becomes itself a transcendent work of art. Mohassess uses the film to prepare, create, and to enter his own Olympian paradise and eternal resting place. The recording angels set down their quills and took up brushes when they placed Mohassess on this earth, and part of the deal was his time on our planet would end in, and with, and through a film made by Farahani.
Rithy Panh’s new feature The Missing Picture is art that exists to express the inexpressible: in this case the experience of the Cambodian genocide. Two million people were killed in circumstances of the most extreme degradation in a regime of random, senseless but ideologically rigorous terror that cross-pollinated the moral improvement of the French Enlightenment with the mass starvation of Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward. The Cambodian genocide transcends words—it was and remains literally unspeakable—but it also transcends images simply because there are none. We have the ID photos, shot against a wall in close-up, minutes before the executions of thousands of victims, but not have a trace of the day-to-day life in the labor camps, killing fields, and death factories. This great Cambodian filmmaker has created a body of work that explores the residue of one of the most brutal periods in human history. In Land of Wandering Souls (2000), Panh’s camera follows the French company Alcatel as it lays phone lines in the new Cambodia, leading to the unintentional opening of mass graves all across the country. In the unbearable and necessary S-21: The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine (2003), Panh confronts three of the perpetrators of the mass slaughter in the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, which converted a high school in Phnom Penh into a murder machine. Panh forces the three men to return to the site of their crimes and reenact their daily deeds. As he films them he keeps asking: “What were you thinking? How could you do this?” This film stands as one of the most profound human rights documents in the sad history of humanity.
Panh has never told his own story on film or described his experiences as a survivor of the killing frenzy that destroyed his family and country. His solution to the “missing picture”—“the lack of visual record,” the complete erasure of millions of lives—is to reconstruct his own daily experiences in the labor camps in miniature dioramas using little clay figures. The clay figures do not move. They stare silent and aghast at the murderous stupidity that is overwhelming them. Their mute, transfixed immobility confers a dignity and some eternal transcendence that their own flesh and blood brothers and sisters were not permitted. Dust to dust becomes a simple and unstoppable fact as we watch these small, humble clay figures buried alive in an avalanche of atrocity. They are uncomplaining, stoic, and have a composure and quiet poise that you could only wish for the humans for whom they silently speak.
Panh’s compassionate eye surveys the landscape of suffering without anger, without agendas, but with clarity and the shock of recognition that comes as you finally look back across decades, back at something that you never want to see again, and yet which demands to be witnessed again and again and again as long as there are people struggling to remain human on this earth.
Agnieszka Holland’s Burning Bush reminds us that determined resistance to state violence, intimidation and mass stupidity is alive and well, if not always visible. Once again, the heroes are not wearing capes. The modesty and basic decency of their actions undermine the inanity of grand rhetoric. The reclaiming of one’s humanity—and in the process everyone else’s humanity—happens in small steady gestures and emerge as ultimate acts of defiance, which come at huge personal cost, but the public and personal cost of inaction is far higher.
These rare and beautiful films at Telluride are re-oxygenating the planet at very high altitude, allowing us to share the stories of a few people who made great sacrifices, who lived and died with almost impossible courage, and whose example serves as both a refuge and a call to action.
Let’s celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Telluride Film Festival! Let’s give all honor to Tom Luddy! And may we also please light a candle on the altar and on the birthday cake of Bill Pence and Stella Pence!
Opera, theater and festival director Peter Sellars, Telluride’s Guest Director in 1999, is a professor in the Department of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA and a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, the Erasmus Prize, and the Gish Prize.