by Patrick Healy, Class of 2017
This past Labor Day weekend, I had the honor of being selected to attend the Telluride Film Festival’s student symposium program. The Telluride Film Festival stands among the most well-respected film festivals in the world, on the sacred level of Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Toronto, New York, AFI, and Sundance, as in recent years Telluride has become a launching ground for films vying for the Academy Award for Best Picture. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), THE KING’S SPEECH (2010), ARGO (2012), and 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) all world premiered at Telluride, while other Oscar winners such as BIRDMAN (2014) and SPOTLIGHT (2015) had their North American premiere at the Rocky Mountain festival after opening a few days earlier at the Venice Film Festival. Due to this trend, many films looking to win the Oscar often debut at Telluride, and thus the festival’s quality of programming is often outstandingly on point
Before I begin with what I saw at this year’s festival, I would like to take a moment to further describe the atmosphere of Telluride and the logistics of the student symposium. For those interested in applying, the student symposium is a wonderful, but competitive adventure—only fifty students are selected from across the world, and rarely is it that more than a single student is selected from one school per year. Students are selected on their most-pure love of film, as demonstrated by an essay and a recommendation from a professor.
This is because the Telluride Film Festival differs in its culture than most other festivals on its level; it is not about who you know but instead what you love. Very few press attend the event, very few industry members make it through the gates. Instead, Telluride opens its doors to true cinephiles, students, and Academy members who have long demonstrated their love for this art form that they work with. If you are lucky enough to attend the festival’s student symposium, you will meet some fellow cinephiles your age but also will learn under the most caring and knowledgeable of faculty, Howie Movshovitz and Linda Williams (google them—it would take me years to summarize their genius). Your days begin at 7am with morning discussions and end around 2am after numerous screenings and private talks with filmmakers and talent that are curated by Howie and Linda for the members of the student symposium only to attend.
Over that weekend, I witnessed the world premiere screenings of seven films: BLEED FOR THIS, LOST IN PARIS, THE B-SIDE: ELSA DORFMAN’S PORTRAIT PHOTOGRAPHY, MEN: A LOVE STORY, MOONLIGHT, WAKEFIELD, and UNA. I also saw five North American premieres, films that had just played at Venice a few days earlier or Cannes months before, and they were: TONI ERDMANN, GRADUATION, ARRIVAL, NERUDA, and LA LA LAND. In addition, I got the chance to attend a retrospective screening of Jean-Pierre Melville’s LES ENFANTS TERRIBLES, introduced by a former assistant director of Melville’s who went on to have a long career as a director emblematic of the New German Wave, Volker Schlöndorff, this year’s guest director of the Telluride Film Festival. Over the weekend, our symposium group had the chance to meet and speak with Schlöndorff, as well as documentarian Ken Burns, Peter Sellers (not the actor, but better!), comedic duo Dominique Abel & Fiona Gordon, documentarian Errol Morris, actor/director Bryan Cranston, actress Jennifer Garner, director Cristian Mungiu, and director Barry Jenkins.
These meetings we had with our symposium guests were magical and life-altering. We were free to ask questions and focus on the films that we had just either seen them in or that they had created. It is an unreal experience, far beyond any other audience Q and A or festival screening, as since there are no recording devices permissible, the filmmakers and actors are much more open and wanting to see how their work impacts you as a young cinephile. These people want to hear your thoughtful opinion, and they value your presence at the festival, as do the Telluride staff. Overall, many former symposium students go on to volunteer or work for the festival in future years. I, myself, plan to go back for as long as I can.
This festival is truly sacred, and the experience I had this past year was one I will not soon forget. As films like MOONLIGHT, LA LA LAND, and TONI ERDMANN rack up the Oscars, I will remember what it was like to walk those Rocky Mountain streets, from screening to screening, and be valued as a young cinephile—a true lover of film.