Sonja Baksa (FEC 2016) from the 28th Telluride Film Festival.

28th Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium (1-5 September 2016)dsc_1430

The impressions are still settling from what was one of the most surreal experiences of my life as film addict and student. The Telluride Film Festival, where I participated in the 28th Student Symposium, a side program bringing together a select group of students from around the world, has recently wrapped its 43rd edition. Having once again curated an elegant and culturally significant selection of films, the festival provided a true cinematic vacation and most indulgent experience of film escapism.

Telluride Film Festival was founded in 1973 and is today one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, existing, however, in a category of its own. Set in the beautiful town of Telluride, high in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, the festival takes place each year over the Labor Day weekend. The festival famously doesn’t announce its program until the opening day, underlining the trust and reputation it has built with its audience, a loyal group of cinephiles making the annual pilgrimage to get lost in movies.

Compared to other festivals of the same prominence, it is much smaller in scope. And much more contained; in location, duration, film selection, and simplicity of the overall production. It is a very intimate cinematic event, organized in a manner that utilizes the remote, scenic location to its atmospheric advantage, creating a three-day cocoon where the barriers between the art, the screen, the author, the performer and the audience disintegrate. The absence of red carpets, juries and awards, press and distribution market in its usual festival form, removes that degree of exclusivity and industry alienation, in service of pure joy and excitement that is film discovery.

The experience was all-encompassing; the town was living and pulsing with movies. Our Symposium schedule was jam-packed with film screenings, discussions and guest speakers, from early morning to late night. There were such moments when a lunch break turned into a quick meal stop at one of the open air Q&A sessions with, for example, Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, or Tom Hanks and Bryan Cranston, while late at night, the sounds of open air film screening filled the streets and kept the bears away. The Labor Day picnic saw Herzog receive his volcano-shaped birthday cake while we lounged in the meadow eating, followed by a Q&A with Emma Stone and Damien Chazelle, there to promote La La Land. Then there was that time I hitched a last minute solo ride on the gondola and travelled over the mountain in pitch dark to catch a screening of Frantz in the nearby mountain village.dsc_1459

Our student group had a specially tailored program, the selection offering a variety of international film entries, old and new, spanning over all screening locations. The combination of film screenings followed by group discussions, as well as discussions with filmmakers themselves, opened up space for new layers of reading and interpretation, adding depth and dimension of film experience, new understanding of the art-form and the act of creation itself. The sessions illuminated where the stories begin and how they take form, all expressed differently by these talented artists, each with their own sensibility and energy.

The films all resonated one way or another, the programming consistent in quality. Personal standouts included Moonlight by Barry Jenkins, and Graduation by Cristian Mungiu, both of whom were guest speakers in our group. For Barry Jenkins, the premiere of his film Moonlight at Telluride was especially significant, seeing as this is where it all started for him, in a way, with himself participating in one of the Student Symposiums, and later returning to work at the festival. He was very gracious with the group, generously sharing his insights, sources of inspiration, as well as personal details woven into the film, making it all the more memorable and inspiring.

The nature of work and projects we have undertaken throughout the year in the Film, Exhibition and Curation course have created a natural base for the type of engagement and observation needed to navigate this particular environment, extending into one of the most rewarding in a series of learning experiences.

I sincerely thank my mentors Jane and Susan for their guidance, care and support throughout the year, and for helping get this particular journey off the ground. Without them, Telluride would have remained a mere bookmarked dream of a cinematic mountain retreat.