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The Telluride Film Festival Is Surprisingly Down to Earth

It isn't Cannes, Tribeca, or Sundance—but the Telluride Film Festival offers thoughtful films with that middle-of-nowhere charm.

All photos by the author

Telluride, Colorado, is hard to get to, doubly so if you're going to the film festival. The first thing you have to do in order to attend the Labor Day weekend festivities is not die on the way, which is easier said than done if—like me—you hate flying and have never been on a charter flight. Booking the deathtrap in tandem with lodging was a logistical pain in the ass, not to mention stupidly expensive, but everyone who's ever been to the 41-year-old festival is crazy about the place and assured me it was well worth it.


There's an airport in Telluride, but because it's nestled so high up in the mountains, most flights land 65 miles away in Montrose. The drive from the airport was expectedly beautiful: You start out at 5,806 feet above sea level and gradually ascend 3,000 feet higher into the mountain air, with popped ears and altitude headaches that continue for the next several days.

I stayed in a lock-off apartment I found on Airbnb. On my first night there, the couple who lived in the house it was attached to brought me extra blankets, fed me steak, and drove me into town for a brief tour. On the way there, they made some jokes about killing me ("What do you mean the steak tasted like mercury?") before taking me to a place called the Fly Me to the Moon Saloon, where a friend of theirs told me about how great it was to live here. I had only been in Colorado for a few hours and had yet to see any movies, but already, I loved it here.

On the way back, I asked how the town's full-time residents feel about the festival. Like all film festivals, I was sure that this one brought in a good number of insufferable douchebags, present company (hopefully) excluded. They told me that anyone with common sense can see all the financial good it does for Telluride, but yes, some of the jetsetters are indeed hard to be around.

That turned out to be true. Seemingly every attendee who wasn't connected to the film industry was a wealthy retiree, who was either dividing their time between Telluride and Phoenix, or who had flown in for the festival every year from somewhere in Northern California. They discussed how good Wild was (it was terrible) and how they didn't like Foxcatcher because it has no likable characters. Listening to them was maddening, especially as someone for whom attending this festival was a questionable decision financially. I spent a good deal of my time in line, silently resenting them.


Luckily, they weren't the only people I overheard. Telluride is known for how many celebrities freely walk around; one of the upsides of the festival being so difficult to get to, at least for them, is that there are no paparazzi and nobody really bothers them. I stood behind Gael García Bernal in line for a documentary about the New York Review of Books and was delighted to discover that I'm several inches taller than he is. You may be in the new Jon Stewart movie, Gael, but you'll never be a towering 5'10".

One other thing about my place in Telluride: It wasn't actually in Telluride. I didn't know this when I booked it, but I was actually staying six miles away in Mountain Village. One gets to and from Telluride proper by taking a 20-minute gondola ride that's advertised as only taking 13, which was terrifying the first time I rode it at night. It was pitch black (save for the rapidly disappearing lights of Telluride itself), 40-something degrees, and I don't even want to know how high up.

During the day, however, the main thoroughfare came to life. The street was lined with a number of flags for some reason—Denmark, England, even China—as well as pricey restaurants and outdoorsy stores. There were dogs everywhere: one wandered into a burger joint late one night, another stood guard outside a pharmacy, and yet another chased after a gondola in what was surely the most adorable moment of the weekend.


The movies themselves were something of a mixed bag, as they are at every festival, though the good far outweighed the bad. There were films about the Troubles ('71), Pablo Escobar (Escobar: Paradise Lost), and the Khmer Rouge (The Gate), but also two Pixar shorts (Feast and Lava) and a series of three short films about peace by Errol Morris. The scenic backdrop made the grimness more palatable, which ended up being more important than I would have guessed.

By far the realest, most intense experience of the entire festival was a Q&A for Joshua Oppenheimer's The Look of Silence. A companion piece to The Act of Killing, in which Oppenheimer had boastful perpetrators of Indonesia's anti-communist purge of 1965 reenact their unpunished crimes, this new film looks at the aftermath from the perspective of a man named Adi, whose brother Ramli was among the many victims. These people are still in power and thus able to justify what they've done pretty easily, having shaped the narrative for the last half-century.

I tend to think Q&As are worthless, but as soon as I realized that Adi was here, I knew I had to stay. The first question was directed toward him—something about how he prepared himself to confront these men. Oppenheimer translated the question for Adi, who spoke only Indonesian. Adi tried to answer but just couldn't. Just shook his head and looked down at the ground, seemingly on the verge of tears. Oppenheimer said something to the effect of "we'll get back to it later," and I spent the next 20 or so minutes trying to imagine what that must be like—thousands upon thousands of miles from home in a Colorado opera house as people discuss a movie about the atrocities you've lived with your entire life, in a language you don't understand.

Adi finally answered after Oppenheimer fielded a few other questions. He said he wanted to confront these men in order to have them acknowledge that what they did was wrong so that he could forgive them and hopefully move on with this life. It was a simple answer, free of the hatred and rage you could very reasonably expect, and one that provoked applause and tears from the small crowd that had gathered here on a Saturday night. Adi asked to sit down for the rest of the Q&A, and a few minutes later I bailed.

The next night, I happened to share a gondola with the two of them. They were the only people involved with the actual films whom I bothered talking to, and I used the opportunity to have the director tell his subject how much I admired his bravery. It felt like an insufficient gesture in the face of what he had done—something dozens of others have surely done and will continue to do as The Look of Silence screens elsewhere—and yet I couldn't just pretend not to be in awe of this man.

Much of Telluride's allure was being so close to the people whose movies were playing there, but that's something I didn't fully appreciate until I shook Adi's hand and walked off into the last night of the festival.

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