Varun Chounal Shares his Experience as a Fellow in the 2017 Telluride Student Symposium
Casual encounters with filmmaking greats, while par for the course at Telluride, did not fail to inspire gratefulness and amazement in me. The 2017 Telluride Student Symposium was my foray into a world that I had previously only imagined and dreamed of belonging to.
The Student Symposium, part of the larger Telluride Film Festival, seeks students who are passionate about film and can engage critically with cinematic material. To apply, prospective attendees must submit a comprehensive essay about a film that has impacted them deeply, along with a professor’s recommendation. Competition is tight, the odds of making it rough. (The organizers kept refusing to give us the actual number!) So, it was thrilling to find out I was selected, to know I’d be granted access to such formative grounds for artistic development.
Tucked in the beautiful mountains of Colorado, the program traditionally takes place over Labor Day weekend. Although frequented by A-list celebrities, the real show stopper is the breath-taking beauty that is the town of Telluride. Laid back and idyllic, Telluride is the perfect backdrop for a range of festival activities: extensive (and often heated) debates about festival films, creative musings on warm, manicured greens, brainstorming new ideas in roadside cafe (while Iñárritu casually walks by!).
The persistent presence of the star-lords of cinema did not mean that festival attendees (and visiting symposium students) were timid in their interactions with directors. Ken Burns and Joshua Oppenheimer spoke to a lively and boisterous crowd about the overuse of stylized violence in cinema. And, Barbet Shroeder’s documentary The Venerable W (a film about religious tension between Buddhists and Muslims in Myanmar) made for heavy-duty post screening debates as many Fellows voiced their concerns about Schroeder’s failure to adhere to his own philosophy regarding portrayals of violence on screen.
The French artist and muralist JR’s collaboration with Agnes Varda in Faces Places particularly enchanted the symposium attendees. The audience responded in earnest to JR’s gregarious and approachable demeanor; there was conversation throughout the three-day fest. Eccentric theater director Peter Sellars and narrative directors Todd Haynes and Mohammad Rasoulof rounded off the program. An emotional whirlwind was set off when Rasoulof laid bare his soul and creative ideology, dwelling on the Iranian government’s hypocrisy in allowing films to be exported that were censured at home. Overcome by emotion, he struggled not to break down over the course of his presentation. It was one of those rare moments of raw passion and feeling that propels so many of us into this profession, but which sometimes gets lost in the real world of economics and production.
The Telluride Student Symposium is carefully curated to nurture the future generation of filmmakers and enthusiasts; it incorporates a diverse range of films that can expand the aesthetic vision and creative range of the student fellows, including mainstream, commercial fare. The lineup was a veritable buffet of world cinema—from Guillermo Del Toro’s Shape of Water and Dayton and Faris’s Battle of the Sexes to indie releases: Greta Girwig’s Lady Bird and Ziad Doueiri’s L’insulte.
Unexpected and humorous episodes mark my recollections of Telluride too. One of the more striking episodes involves a briefing where student fellows were informed of “secret bathrooms” strategically placed around the arena. One of the washrooms was claimed to be haunted. (It is a space of imaginative storytelling, after all.) Additionally, bears are a common nuisance plaguing the town. One of my favorite instructional guides gave a short “how-to” in tackling an errant bear. (For the curious ones, the trick is to make yourself as “big” as possible and intimidate the bear.)
My remembrance of Telluride would be incomplete without acknowledging, in gratitude, the constant efforts made to remind seasoned actors to engage with student fellows. I had been told that this is not a “networking festival” a la Sundance or Cannes, but rather a more authentic and intentional opportunity to trade ideas and admire the work of some of the most talented filmmakers of our time. The entire town comes together to host the participants of this festival with the love and care befitting a large family reunion. Despite hosting multiple festivals throughout the year, the excitement of the people here is palpable. Generosity and collaboration are core values of the entire festival. The whole occasion seems devoid of unnecessary glitz, glamour, showy red carpets, corporate advertising, quid pro quo exchanges or sponsorship deals.
There is, finally, no articles or interviews that can bring to life the passion, dedication, and widespread love for the silver screen that permeates Telluride. So, if you are a student and are fanatical about films, look no further. The Telluride Film Festival beckons you; this is one casting call you should not skip.