Breaking and mending at Mountainfilm in Telluride 2014

Like the prayer flags that accompany Mountainfilm at every turn, this year's festival had many colors and themes. Photo/2013 by Allen Best

Like the prayer flags that accompany Mountainfilm at every turn, this year’s festival had many colors and themes. Photo/2013 by Allen Best

Mountainfilm in Telluride explores broken men & broken environments

by Allen Best

Like the prayer flags that flutter at the many venues of Mountainfilm in Telluride, this year’s four-day festival had many colorful themes, some bold and others subtle. No one person can absorb it all. Breaking and mending were the strongest themes I detected.

A crowd favorite was “DamNation.” A film about the damming of rivers, it was shown four times and with strong attendance. The central contention of the film is that dams inflict great physical and ecological damage. That’s hard to dispute. The treasured Glen Canyon was lost to create Lake Powell, and the great dams of the Columbia River have blocked the epic spawning runs of salmon. Targeted in particular were four dams on the Snake River, which originates in Jackson Hole and has carved our wonderful but now plugged canyons in Idaho.

Those dams need to be broken, the filmmakers say, and some dams have been. One of them in Olympic National Park, west of Seattle, was breached several years ago, salmon returning rapidly. The river ecosystem mended quickly.

In “Emptying the Skies,” songbirds of the Mediterranean are threatened, the population rapidly on the way to being broken by poachers. In one passage, a woman rationalizes that killing the birds for profit is OK, because she kills just five. Seeking to mend this situation are bird-lovers, the subject of the film. The morale is that the efforts of a few people, fully committed, can make all the difference.

A more global problem is explored in “The Seeds of Time, “a film about the work of Cary Fowler, a scientist from Memphis, Tenn., whose mission has been to protect the genetic plant diversity of the last 12,000 mostly ice-free years. Fowler, who was in Telluride, explained that there are, for example, 200,000 varieties of rice.

In this time of big agriculture, we have discarded much of the vast genetic diversity of potatoes, rice and many other foodstuffs. Having just a few varieties of wheat, for example, leaves us vulnerable if pathogens figure out how to destroy those few varieties.

Our system of food is broken.

Fowler, working with other scientists, has established what he calls a “repository of options for the future.” Seeds from around the world are stockpiled and archives in the interior of a mountain located on a Norwegian island in the Arctic Circle, safeguarded for a time of future need.

“Without crop diversity, agriculture will not be able to adapt to climate change, and neither will we,” said Fowler. It’s not just a matter of planting the same crops farther north, he said. He looks to a time beyond his own, a time when our agriculture system must absolutely be mended. Genetically modified food is not at the top of his list of concerns.

My interests in energy led me to films about the drilling fields of North America. One set of films, called “Dear Governor Hickenlooper,” explored the explosive drilling for natural gas and oil in Colorado. The central contention is that our laws are broken in giving neighbors of such drilling so few rights. In one scene, a young family in their dream home in the country is confronted with a drilling operation across the gravel road that drives them to their basement and fills them with dread about the long-term impact of exposure to chemicals using in drilling.

“Some things are knowable, and some things that are exquisitely unknowable.” says a scientist in one film sequence. That is a pivotal statement for Colorado as it girds for a nasty election this fall about what constitutes a sane way forward in this new, furious pace of drilling.

More moving yet, but for different reasons, was a story from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields. Williston is the largest boom city there, job-seekers from across the country drawn to the prospect of big-money jobs. That story has been well told.

“The Overnighters” tells the story of some people, mostly men, many of them older or from more dark or at least desperate situations, who can find no place to stay once they get to Williston.

In response, Jay Reinke, the pastor of a local Lutheran church, persuades his congregation to allow the homeless men, 1,000 of them over the course of two years, temporary or longer quarters in the church.

If that is, on the face of it, an act of Christian charity, some church members confide to the filmmaker that they have trouble with the imposition. “This is my not home anymore, and it’s very difficult for me,” says one, speaking of Williston altogether but, it seems, the church, too. City officials also have problems.

“I don’t see how a community can simply turn its back on people who have no place to sleep,” says Reinke.

But also this: “It’s a very broken world. Everyone is broken.”

Among those broken people is the pastor himself, a revelation that adds further drama to an already rich movie.

Premiered at Sundance in January, “The Overnighters” is a superb piece of documentary filmmaking. It was also extremely low budget. Jesse Mosse, the filmmaker explained that once a month he traveled from San Francisco to North Dakota and, in Williston, slept on a cot in a hallway along with others of the other desperate men. His film got my vote for best film of Mountainfilm. There was not one mountain in it.

Wilderness was an overt theme of this year’s festival, as this is the 40th anniversary of the 1964 law passed by the U.S. Congress. But at a breakfast, several of those involved in the trenches of preserving wild land and ecosystem on a global basis warned against issuing visions from the mountain top. Instead, when working in places like Africa and Latin America, they said, the concept of human rights must be integrated into wilderness.

“Don’t be a savior, be a partner,” said Vance Martin, president of the WILD Foundation.

At another breakfast, Peter Yarrow, one of the principles in the folk-singing group Peter, Paul and Mary, lead attendees in renditions of “Blowin’ in the Wind” as fog shrouded the streets of Telluride. “Don’t try to compete with your neighbor,” he advised. “Try to sing softly enough to hear them, too.”

The resulting was harmony, and a metaphor for mending those things that are broken, whether it’s ecosystems or human beings.

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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