By Morgan Tilton, The Denver Magazine
Where can you meet human-rights activist Shannon Galpin, famed climber Tommy Caldwell, and Fawzia Koofi, the first female speaker in the Afghan Parliament, all in one place? At one of America’s oldest film festivals: the 37th annual Telluride Mountainfilm Festival, taking place Memorial Day weekend.
Packed with adrenaline, the festival’s hand-selected 100-plus documentaries and shorts share educational and inspirational stories from around the globe, tackling everything from climate change and culture to human rights and environmental causes. Between films, festivalgoers can catch book signings, coffee conversations, presentations, and much more.
Here, we ask five directors and adventurers from some of this year’s must-see films to share behind-the-scenes details of their experiences.
Duration: 12 minutes
Colorado Spotlight: Directed by Colorado-based Sweetgrass Productions‘ Nick Waggoner—who earned his BA in documentary film from Colorado College—and Michael Brown, Afterglow lights up the snow sport industry, literally. It was filmed entirely at night using tailored LED-ladened suits, five types of aircrafts, and more than 9,000 pounds of camera and lighting equipment.
Riskiest Moment: “Setting up the lights on crazy-exposed knife-edge ridges,” says Waggoner. “We would ‘bag’ the equipment—a light, light stand, filter, frames, massive generator, extension cords—in a net and long-line the gear from a helicopter. Then, we would dig out a tiny platform in the snow (with sheer drops on either side) and stand there to receive and unclip the 750-pound wrecking ball from the helicopter.”
Behind-the-scenes: “In a tactful, multi-step process, we transported gear 70 miles from Anchorage to a remote glacier—the cargo plane could only handle trips carrying 4,000 pounds—and marked the glacier’s runways using a tiny two-seat plane,” says Waggoner. “We were there for 14 days and only filmed three nights, which says a lot about the logistics of the shoot.”
Epiphany: “There were moments when we were sitting in the wilderness in complete awe of what we were a part of. Most of us knew we’d never see anything like it again in our lives.”
Screening: May 23, 8:45 p.m.; Base Camp Outdoor Theatre, Town Park, 500 E. Colorado Ave., Telluride; Free Admission
Duration: 7 minutes
Colorado Spotlight: Former Telluride resident and director Ben Knight now lives inSalida, and runs Felt Soul Media with Travis Rummel. Denali celebrates human–dog loyalty through the story of filmmaker Ben Moon’s cancer journey and the unwavering support of his four-legged friend, Denali.
Most Memorable Moment: “I broke my keyboard’s ‘L’ key from crying like an idiot while I was writing the film,” Knight says. “It’s incredible what Ben went through. There are many cancer survivors out there, and Ben’s story is pretty special. I feel very blessed that he trusted me to help him tell it.”
Behind-the-scenes: “Ben had Denali for 14-and-a-half years, spanning most of his early adult life,” Knight says. “They covered 150,000 miles throughout the West together in a van. Denali was renowned for wandering around camp and introducing Ben to many people who would become his friends.”
Epiphany: “It can be scary to take on projects that are just for your soul or to collaborate with a friend. Working on Denali reminded me how important it is to tell these stories—no matter what. I hope [the film] will resonate with a lot of people who have been through cancer, or people who have been patiently at home waiting to greet them.”
Screenings: May 22, 6:15 p.m.; Sheridan Opera House, 110 N. Oak St.; May 24, 3:30 p.m.; High Camp, Mountain Village Conference Center, 580 Mountain Village Blvd., Mountain Village
Duration: 15 minutes
Colorado Spotlight: Born and raised—and still living—in Boulder, director Joey Schusler, along with co-director Karl Thompson, captures just how far weekend warriors can travel as they go to the top of North America’s third tallest peak, Pico de Orizaba, and back again in 55 Hours In Mexico.
Riskiest Moment: “The film’s adventure was inherently risky: Beyond navigating glacial fields and scrambling over volcanic rock, we went from sea level to 18,500 ft. in approximately 10 hours, which puts you at risk of High-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) or High-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE),” Schusler says.
Behind-the-scenes: “We had exactly 55 hours to document the trip. We left on a Thursday and were back in Denver on Sunday morning, so it was definitely a constant state of hurry to get the shot while moving up the mountain,” says Schusler.
Epiphany: You can pack just about anything into a weekend if you try hard enough.
Screenings: May 23, 12 p.m.; High Camp, Mountain Village Conference Center; May 24, 9:45 a.m.; Sheridan Opera House
Duration: 40 minutes
Colorado Spotlight: Along with directors Renan Ozturk and Taylor Rees, Telluride mountaineer Hilaree O’Neill leads a five-person team on what became a harrowing expedition to summit the mysterious peak in Myanmar, Hkakabo Razi.
Riskiest Moment: “The whole trip felt like we were hanging on by our fingernails. Several times, we walked back-and-forth across this bamboo tight-wire bridge to get a shot, hundreds of feet above a river. I tried not to look down as the bamboo bent and creaked under my feet,” says O’Neill.
Behind-the-scenes: “Knowing that travel would be difficult, Renan arrived in Burma with an already pared down set of equipment. In the end, 90 percent of the equipment was left behind in the jungle. By the time we reached the mountains, he was making due with the absolute bare minimum. At one point, the monitor on the main camera broke, and every shot afterwards was a total guess,” O’Neill says.
Epiphany: “I’ve worked on a lot of film projects over the years, and with this trip I realized that filming can be a lot of hard work and add extra stress to the team. Some trips are better suited for filming than others,” says O’Neill.
Screenings: May 22, 9 p.m.; Sheridan Opera House; May 25, 9:15 a.m.; Michael D. Palm Theatre, 721 W. Colorado Ave., Telluride
Duration: 99 minutes
Colorado Spotlight: “Valley Uprising is about how a small ground of outcasts and Bohemian adventurers started a rock climbing revolution in America’s most legendary national park, Yosemite,” summarized co-creator Nick Rosen, who paired up with director Peter Mortimer, Sender Films founder and Colorado native.
Riskiest Moment: “Things feel risky any time we are filming one of Alex Honnold’s cutting-edge free solo climbs,” says Rosen. “But we have confidence in Alex. It felt even riskier when we were filming these outlaw climber-types who are always doing illegal things. I was praying that the park rangers wouldn’t suddenly appear from behind a tree, bust all of us, and ban us from the park for life.”
Behind-the-scenes: “It took us seven years to make the film. We created an archive of about 25,000 historical images from which to draw our story,” Rosen says.
Epiphany: “One of the greatest moments of discovery was when we were trying to piece together the scene of the infamous drug plane crash of 1977, where climbers discovered and looted a drug plane [full of marijuana] that went down in the Yosemite high country. They smoked a bunch of the jet-fuel-soaked, mildly explosive weed and then sold most of it. We were really stressed about how to bring this legendary story to life. But through a lot of research we dug up the original photos from the looting of the crash site. They were hilarious,” Rosen says.
Screening: May 24, 12:15 p.m.; Michael D. Palm Theatre
The Telluride Mountainfilm runs May 22 to 25. For more information, visit mountainfilm.org.
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