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Why Mountain Spirit Matters

Telluride MountainfilmTelluride Mountainfilm isn't just about mountains, it's about the mountain spirit--an uplifting sense of community that drives social change. In my last post I gave just a few examples of calls to action that resonated throughout the festival. But the spirit and energy of Awareness into Action is one that has developed over decades of community building--the kind of motivation that can propel social action campaigns into the spotlight.

What do land mines, widows of 9/11, plastic bags and Alaska salmon have in common? They are all subjects of high impact films, whose makers spoke in the discussion on Making Movies That Matter. This 8:00 am Memorial Day morning Coffee Talk* made evident the power of community to lift the efforts of socially engaged filmmaking.

Suzan Beraza of the high impact film Bag It, screened at Mountainfilm in 2010, discussed how she unwittingly went from filmmaker to activist. The story of a good-natured competition between two Colorado towns snowballed into a national campaign that caught the attention of the American Chemistry Council. Go to www.bagitthemovie.com to learn about the film and its efforts to eliminate plastic bags and plastic waste. Go to www.aboutbagit.com to see the first ever campaign by the American Chemistry Council to encourage recycling—a direct response to the film.

MoviesThatMatterNext to Beraza sat Ben Knight, the two just began working together on a film that looks at uranium mining. His last film was Red Gold, about the unique salmon ecosystem in Bristol Bay, Alaska, threatened by efforts to mine gold and copper from what is potentially the richest deposit in the world. Knight pointed out that it's rare for films to raise awareness before something becomes a problem, as Red Gold did. Thanks to his efforts, the story is going to be re-cut and aired on Frontline. Knight, who lived and worked in Telluride for years and became a self-taught photographer and videographer, said this was the most important work he's done in his life. Red Gold stole the Director's Choice AND Audience Awards at Mountainfilm in 2008.

The filmmakers' discussion brought about the need for hope, humor and anger in storytelling. Beth Gage said that "people want happy endings... [but] maybe we need to make people angry." Beth and her husband George of Gage and Gage Productions are the makers of From the Ground Up, which tells the stories of widows of 9/11 and their hope and resilience. They are also in the midst of the deeply passionate film, BiddeBidder70r 70, Tim DeChristopher's story, which is still playing out.

Though both hope and anger can be excellent motivators, the filmmakers emphasized not to underestimate the power of levity. As Beth Gage said, it can be emotionally exhausting to watch these films. Sitting to her left was Richard Fitoussi, who was a producer for A Perfect Soldier. He retold the story of how the film's subject, Aki Ra, a former Cambodian soldier who dedicated his life to disabling land mines one by one, took off his suit jacket in the excruciating heat, balled it up and used it to wipe the sweat off his face. Audiences respond to humor.

Next door to the Movies That Matter Coffee Talk was a discussion including Bill McKibben and Tim DeChristopher on Radical Environmentalism with more than a few rounds of applause. Not to be outdone, the Making Movies That Matter audience gave the panel a standing ovation catching the enthusiastic attention of Festival Director David Holbrooke, a stalwart presence at every program I attended. The cheer was a perfect metaphor for the wakeup call undoubtedly felt by all festival participants.

Call to Action: Become a part of the Mountainfilm family.

*All Coffee Talks were bring-your-own-cup, part of the effort to create a zero-waste festival.