The major themes at this year’s Telluride Film Festival (my 15th) were violence, secrets and deception, truths revealed, and history relived — on a political and personal level. In short: Life!
You can’t see everything at Telluride, so I skipped the lighter fare in favor of reality and what I thought reflected today’s turbulent times. The importance of these serious and often difficult films was discussed at one of the many panels featuring directors, writers, and stars.
“Films are the way many Americans learn their history; movies can change the world,” Ben Affleck (star/director of “Argo”) said.
“Art reflects what’s going on around us, what the world is thinking about,” said one of the festival’s directors.
“Artists can reshape things,” said political writer Mark Danner. “The artist has to do his part to change opinion.”
The Lebanese film maker Ziad Doueiri (“Attack”) and his Israeli counterpart Dror Moreh (“Gatekeepers”) were part of this discussion. “‘Gatekeepers’ has a bold and important political message — listen and take it with you,” Danner said. “It’s totally true but plays like a spy thriller.”
There was also the introduction of the idea of a “moral compass” at this panel when participants agreed that true heroism can be in not following orders. In “Argo,” the festival’s one sneak preview, Affleck directs and stars as Tony Mendez. The character is the CIA officer who is ordered to abandon the hostages he was saving in Iran during the crisis in 1979 when the American Embassy was stormed to protest the brutish Shah being sheltered in the U.S. Mendez concocts an outrageous plot to convince the government that hostages are part of a film crew and provides false identities and documents.
Now a multi-faceted film that can keep audience members on the edge of their seats, it was not until 1990 that this mission was allowed to become public. Because of its appeal to audiences of all ages — the young for the action, the older for the history — I predict a booming box office for “Argo.”
Two films convinced us that it is impossible to really know another person, no matter how intimate the relationship. The truths of a marriage and family secrets are revealed in the Israeli film “Attack,” and the realities of one’s parent’s life is depicted in Sarah Polley’s autobiographical “Stories We Tell.”
There’s mob mentality in places from South America to Australia, and as Julie Huntsinger, festival co-director, said at our press briefing, “One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” We shuddered through riots in Chile, Iran, Israel, France, Denmark, and a few that I missed. This must have been a good year for “extras” around the world.
In Israel, two brilliant films showed both Arab and Jewish uprisings. “Act of Killing” contemplates the slaughter in Indonesia in 1965 but includes current interviews with the murderers, who boasted about their crimes. The violence is on a smaller scale in France’s “Rust and Bone” as ruthless boxers vie for huge payoffs.
Perhaps the most important offering here, the world premiere of a documentary, had me in tears and physical distress over the realities it depicted. In “The Gatekeepers” director Dror Moreh interviews six former directors of Shin Bet, the feared Israeli secret intelligence agency whose members have never been interviewed about their work. The consistent truths revealed by these leaders describe that organization’s methods of infiltration, torture, and murder, and that their bosses, Israel’s elected leaders, “led the Jewish state into unending occupation, hatred, and conflict.”
“In ’67,” one ex-director said, “one million Palestinians came under Israeli rule. Their historical sites were no longer theirs. Our job was to control these people.”
“Many of our missions were not legal,” another said. “There was no morality. There were brutal beatings, smashed heads, broken bones, killing a prisoner whose hands were tied, using live fire against stone throwers.”
One of the retired directors predicts another political assassination coming from religious extremists who believe that their law overrides the government’s law. “It was this group who assassinated Israel’s peace-dealing premiere Yitzahk Rabin and who were detained in their plans to bomb the Dome of the Rock and an Arab bus. The government released members of this Jewish underground,” he explained, “who were barely punished.”
“We saw that politicians can’t be trusted,” was only one of the chilling messages of this film that anyone who is interested in Israel, from any perspective, cannot afford to miss. The viewer saw sincere regret in the faces of these aging Israelis who relived their careers for the camera.
“Attack” also combines the personal with the political as a celebrated Arab physician working in Israel discovers the truth about his beloved wife of 15 years. When he travels back to revisit their roots, the wife he never really knew is revealed to have been a suicide bomber. The film takes us behind the scenes in the Palestinian city Nablus, with seldom-seen views of residential interiors, a church, a mosque, and the interior lives of the people at home. Through the doctor’s eyes, we experience the security wall that Israel built and the degrading treatment people receive when crossing the borders.
“It was not easy for me to go to Israel to make this movie,” Lebanese director Ziad Doueiri said of his moving film “Attack.” “I was brought up to believe this was my enemy. We grow up looking evil in the face, yet we are so much alike. Jews talk with their hands and say they invented felafel and the Arabs do the same; both groups yell and talk over each other,” he said.
“Israelis today are reexamining their foundation,” Doueiri said, “but Arabs are still fighting the battle. They’re not yet making films about it.”
The terror was subtle in “Barbara.” Germany’s entry into the Oscars, the film tells the story of a compassionate pediatrician in 1980s Berlin who was banished to the provinces for trying to escape to freedom. While still plotting to emigrate with her lover, whom she meets secretly, the Stasi is ever present, watching her every move. Her sacrifice and heroism evince a morality difficult to sustain at that time.
Perhaps the most painfully agonizing movie on a personal level was Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. In the film, the truth of aging is poignantly depicted, along with the superhuman efforts of a husband to care for a wife in physical and mental decline after a marriage of many decades.
In “Hyde Park on the Hudson,” Laura Linney, a Telluride regular, plays Daisy Suckley, a mousy distant cousin of Franklin Roosevelt who becomes his intimate over a long period of time. The story was never revealed to the public until Suckley died in 1991 at the age of 100.
Bill Murray, pretty believable as FDR despite my early reservations, pulls off my favorite scene in this film with aplomb. In an after-dinner tete-a-tete between the president and England’s King George, who has come to America to plead for help in fighting the Nazis, the king exclaims, “this damned stutter!” FDR responds, “this damned polio!” It seemed that the two world leaders were instantly bonded.
While a bit too homey for me, the action takes place mostly in Sara Delano’s (FDR’s domineering mother) country home, and the film concentrates perhaps too much on Franklin’s philandering rather than his accomplishments. But this is one small slice of the 32nd president’s life. In his time, the press ignored the women in his life as well as his disability. As one current reviewer said, “it seems that he collected more than stamps.” In this film, we see FDR being carried from place to place and in his wheelchair — something spared the public during his lifetime. A hot dog picnic three months before the war — planned to show the British royals the “real” America — was part of the Brit’s visit.
“The skill of FDR,” said director Roger Michell at the Q&A afterwards, “was to keep everyone happy. He gave the whole nation confidence. While we had a large German population in America, he was able to convince the American people to form an alliance with Great Britain.”
The Linney character, Daisy Suckley, lived near FDR, and when she died the unknown affair was revealed in letters found under Daisy’s bed. The screenwriter, Richard Nelson, said that the local media covered the discovery. Daisy was one of the few people who was with FDR when he died, and it was she who gave him his dog, Fala.
Mads Mikkelson, the Danish matinee idol, had two starring roles here and was honored with a tribute and retrospective of his films. With a working-class background, he was a gymnastics star and then a Martha Graham dancer. He later attended drama school and rose quickly to cinema fame. In “The Hunt” he plays a warm simpatico who after being downsized from his teaching job becomes an aide in a small-town Danish kindergarten. When a child falsely accuses him of immoral behavior, the man suffers shocking repercussions and horror as the power of violence and mob hysteria in a small town is revealed. This film from Denmark gained Mikkelson the Best Actor award at Cannes.
In “The Royal Affair,” based on historical events, Mikkelson is Johann Struensee, the German doctor who becomes the confidant of the mentally ill Danish king Christian VII. Struensee uses his influence to help bring Denmark out of feudalism and into enlightenment in 1770 — even before the French Revolution. While the doctor’s efforts create laws to protect the people, eventual betrayal and a coup against the king send the country backwards and keep it there for years to come. Struensee’s affair with the unhappy queen helped expedite his downfall.
When interviewed about the intensity of the characters he plays, Mikkelson said, “I try hard to let it go when I go home to my family. I don’t insist that my kids call me by the character’s name.” As the audience laughed en masse, he added “some people do that.”
Marion Cotillard, honored with a retrospective of her work (she’s 36 and has made 36 movies— playing Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose,” Picasso’s amour in “Midnight in Paris,” and Dillinger’s girlfriend in “Public Enemy”) was here with the new French film “Rust and Bone.”
She plays a free-spirited trainer of whales who experiences a life-changing accident. Pairing her with an improbable lover, the traditional “loser” played by Belgian newcomer Matthias Schoenaerts, this absorbing, creative movie shows how trauma, like psychoanalysis, can heal and change lives. The journey to resolution is gripping throughout.
At her tribute, Cotillard wore tight black jeans and a white shirt, vibrant with her long black hair pulled back. She told the audience that her parents were actors, her father a mime, and that their passion for their work was contagious. Starting life as a singer in a band, she saved for two years to come to New York to take the total immersion Berlitz course in English (“I took it twice,” she said). She then worked for four months with a dialect coach to lose her French accent to play Dillinger’s girl friend. She describes herself as a mother and an environmental activist.
The secrets on the big screens here were personal as well as political. Canadian actress and director Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” is her effort to understand the mysteries surrounding her actress mother who died when Sarah was 11. In the pursuit of truth, Polley interviews friends, colleagues, and fellow actors and learns some shattering truths that will forever change her life.
I called Pablo Larrain’s “No” the South American Mad Men. In this funny yet serious film, a successful advertising campaign, using the techniques of marketing consumer products, contributes to the defeat of dictator Pinochet and sets that country on the road to democracy.
Ken Burns, a Telluride regular, and daughter Sarah Burns were here with “The Central Park Five,” directed by Burns and based on Sarah’s book about the Central Park jogger case in 1989. In that infuriating miscarriage of justice, five young men from Harlem were falsely accused, served time, and were finally acquitted. All five are interviewed in this film, which I did not manage to fit into my schedule.
Salman Rushdie was here with the film version of his iconic novel “Midnight’s Children,” which I skipped and know I’ll get to see with the huge Indian audiences here in central New Jersey.
I was sorry to miss “Wadja,” the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia and by a woman, no less. The heroine is a resourceful 11-year-old determined to overcome the harsh restrictions on women and to preserve her own inner life.
If you go to the movies only to be entertained, not to be shattered by the realities of governments and humanity, you’ll enjoy some of the lighter fare that was popular with Telluride audiences. There are always animations, comic shorts, and silent films accompanied by live music. Some of the newer offerings I’d like to see later are:
“Sapphire,” the story of the ascent of an Aboriginal country-western singing group in 1968 Australia, where white racism rules. Audiences universally loved this one, which is based on a true story.
“Love Marilyn” shows a different Monroe through recently discovered diaries and letters. It features readings by Uma Thurman, Lindsay Lohan, Glenn Close, Ellen Burstyn, and Marisa Tomei. Included is previously unseen footage from the Arthur Miller and Truman Capote estates, adding new dimensions to what we know about the star.
“Frances Ha” is Noah Baumbach’s Gen X story about dating, working hard to afford tiny apartments, and trying to get ahead. People here called it smart and funny.
My own comic relief was “Superstar” with French comedy star Kad Merad playing a retiring guy who becomes a celebrity through no effort of his own in this age of social media — another example of mob mentality and how the Internet can adversely affect a life. After the protagonist’s initial turmoil, the mob goes the other way and spurns him with a vengeance. He eventually is able to return to normal life –– albeit with a new love whom he met when his fame took him to television notoriety.
Seen around town: Alice Waters, Dave Eggers, Laura Dern, Dennis Quaid, Alexander Payne, Sarah Polley, Sally Potter, Michael Winterbottom, Ken Burns, Salman Rushdie, Noah Baumbach, Roger Corman, Leonard Maltin, Errol Morris, and many other notables. Ben Affleck and wife Jennifer Garner on hand with their baby boy and daughters, 6 and 3, were spotted having dinner in a Colorado Avenue restaurant one evening, and Garner was in the public library one afternoon en famille. No nanny evident. Affleck joked in a panel discussion that his children loved riding the gondola up to Mountain Village and that it’s a good thing it’s free, or he’d be broke.
The Telluride Film Festival is hard work — 12-13 hours door to door, starting with train to Newark Airport, flight to Denver, small jet to Montrose, CO, and 90 minutes in a van to this beautiful mountain paradise. Then it’s trying to handicap the schedule of more than 40 programs over four days, deciding what are your “must sees” and then standing in line hoping to get in. But it’s like mass hypnosis for the approximately 4,000 film goers who include staff, guests, filmmakers and volunteers. There’s only one topic of conversation all weekend — the films.
Except for the opening night banquet and the closing picnic, most of us eat on the fly, never taking the time to sit down for a meal. And while I, representing this newspaper, am invited to several events that feature celebrities, I choose to skip them and spend the time watching movies. And though everyone is exhausted when we leave, there’s no thought of not coming back next year for the 40th annual festival.