Telluride Film Festival #49

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First takes on day one

By Paul O’Rourke

Ed. note: Telluride Magazine contributor Paul O’Rourke covered the Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day Weekend. This is the first of three installments in which he discusses the films presented.

The Town of Telluride has, once again, been transformed into the SHOW, thanks to the talents, the sweat, and the brains of its directors, advisors, staff and volunteers and the thousands of film lovers who make the Telluride Film Festival (TFF) the wonderful celebration it is and has been for forty-nine years now.

The festival program—comprised of feature-length, short, documentary, student-made, retrospective, and silent-era films—remains as strong as ever; there is no such thing as a bad movie at Telluride. The following “reviews” (they’re more like first impressions) cover just a small sample of what was screened during TFF #49. The number of wonderful cinematic choices make it impossible to see everything: another Telluride reality. And I must say, what I did see was, for a variety of reasons and perspectives, controversial, gratifying, humbling, sometimes shocking, often heartrending, thought-provoking, and conversation- (if not argument)inducing. It might be said: If you don’t respond, one way or another, to the films at Telluride, you’re not breathing.

Speaking of choices and conversation, please allow a few words about Women Talking, an excellent film directed and written by Sarah Polley, one of this year’s three Silver Medallion recipients. Based on Miriam Toews novel of the same name, Women Talkingis staged (at times it feels like a play) primarily in a hayloft, in a rural Mennonite farm community. The seven women in the loft—portrayed by a remarkable ensemble cast, including Rooney Mara, Frances McDormand, Claire Foy, Judith Ivey, Jessie Buckley, and Sheila McCarthy—have, along with all the women in the community, endured sexual and emotional abuse; they are denied access to education and even more onerously, freedom of expression. And that’s where talking comes into the picture. How to respond to the abuse presents a challenge and choices: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. Urgency comes from the fact that all the men (save August, played by Ben Whishaw, who acts as a neutral observer and arbiter to the women talking) are away from the colony; the women have forty-eight hours to decide what to do.

The talking that ensues is angry, humorous, pointed, heated, emotional, combative, and tender, and ultimately resolves the dilemma. And the dialogue is perhaps, as I imagine Polley intended, fundamental in developing the understanding of and appreciation for the film’s several strong characters. We leave this intriguing and poignant film satisfied, if not lifted, by how these women will move forward in their lives; we don’t know the details, only that it will be different and better thanks to women talking.

                                                                              ***

Bryan Fogel’s excellent documentary, Icarus: The Aftermath, concludes in similar fashion as Women Talking, with the audience not knowing the protagonist’s ultimate status. We want to know what happened, of course, to the film’s central character, Russian scientist and former head of Russia’s anti-doping agency Grigory Rodchenkov. You see, Rodchenkov has blown the whistle on Russia’s widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs and his own agency’s complicity in this international scandal fostered by way of falsifying testing results. That Rodchenkov has exposed the ugly truth of his country’s sanctioned cheating has made him a traitor, at least to Vladimir Putin and his minions, all of whom have publicly called for Grigory’s assassination. Rodchenkov, fortunately, was spirited out of the country in time, finding refuge, but not immediate asylum, in the United States.

This riveting thriller is more than the chronicle of one whistleblower’s journey to escape capture or death by way of the ever-vigilant, if not thuggish Russian secret police. This documentary is more about the system, about Putin and his treachery and his lies about Rodchenkov and how the International Olympic Committee played into Putin’s hands. We’re also left wondering about that now famous meeting between Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki, where we can only imagine the American President was pressured to repatriate Rodchenkov.

Fogel’s film takes us as close as he can to Grigory’s ultimate redemption. There’s still more to learn about this whistleblower; we need to wait—and hope—and see. That’s what this suspenseful and important film is all about.

                                                                             ***

I was very much looking forward to seeing Broker, for two good reasons. Hirokazu Kore-eda directed Shoplifters, one of my favorites from TFF #45 and Song Kang-Ho who was the protagonist in Parasite, the hit from TFF #46. What could be better?

Broker has a somewhat curious premise: two gregarious and likable con men—Song Kang-Ho being one, Gang Dong-Won, the other—conspire to steal an abandoned newborn from a “Baby Box” (a repository for unwanted babies, located next to a church) and then sell the baby to well-heeled adoptive parents in order to remedy their precarious finances. What could possibly go wrong with such a plan?

For starters, the mother (Lee Ji-eun) shows up to reclaim her son. And a female cop (Bae Doona) who’d witnessed the mother abandoning her child and the subsequent “kidnapping” is bound and determined to apprehend this gang of criminals.

What follows is dramatic and humorous and touching all at once. From one failed “baby sale” to the next, the trio of Song, Dong, and Ji-eun, accompanied by the baby, of course, gradually come to understand more than just a little bit about one another. As Kore-eda rendered so well in Shoplifters, family is process, not always logical, seldom predictable, and sometimes competitive, but always loyal. And, thanks to Kore-eda’s masterful direction, this foursome comes to realize how much they mean to one another, and no matter how eccentric or unconventional their situation may be, they are indeed a loving family.

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