Barry Jenkins and the Telluride Film Festival: A Celebratory Journey

Telluride Film Festival

The Telluride Film Festival, nestled high in the picturesque alpine valley of the Rockies, is marking its 50th anniversary this year. For Oscar-winning filmmaker Barry Jenkins, known for his work on “Moonlight,” this festival holds a special place in his heart. In 2002, as a film student from Florida State, Jenkins made his first journey to the mountains to attend the festival’s student symposium, a platform for aspiring filmmakers to connect with industry professionals over the Labor Day weekend.

Unlike some glitzy red-carpet affairs, Telluride prides itself on its unassuming nature. As Jenkins puts it, “There is no red carpet, there are no frills.” Filmmakers and cinephiles mingle over coffee, making it a unique and approachable experience. This down-to-earth vibe, even though festival passes can be costly, endears Telluride to its attendees.

One remarkable aspect is the accessibility of short films, which are open for all to view. Jenkins has been curating the short film section for the past decade, taking time away from his busy schedule to attend this festival that now spans four days instead of the usual three.

Jenkins admires Telluride for its dedication to emerging artists and its welcoming atmosphere. He recalls his first visit, where he attended Q&A sessions with renowned directors like Fernando Meirelles, Chris Hedges, D.A. Pennebaker, Lynne Ramsay, and David Cronenberg. It was an environment where engaging conversations and connections were the norm.

Over the years, Jenkins has seen Telluride evolve into a place where people connect on a human level before discussing art. This personal touch is something he cherishes.

The festival’s immersive experiences are etched in his memory, like the time when a fire alarm went off during a screening, and nobody moved because it felt like part of the movie. Telluride provides an environment where films become more than just images on a screen; they become moments of shared emotion.

What makes Jenkins’ connection to Telluride even more remarkable is that he hasn’t missed a single year since 2002. His journey from a film student to an acclaimed director began with a simple invitation from Jim Bedford, then-director of operations at the festival, to return the next summer. Jenkins became a “Telluride Dog,” doing grunt work leading up to the festival, which ultimately led to various production jobs and his deep-rooted connection to the festival.

Telluride’s ethos has always been about showing films that matter, by directors and artists who matter, without getting caught up in the awards season hype. The festival keeps its lineup a well-guarded secret until the opening day to emphasize its commitment to showcasing movies.

Jenkins humorously reveals that the festival’s enforcement of lineup secrecy is simply, “Shut the f*ck up.” This secrecy preserves the excitement and surprise for festival-goers, critics, and award contenders alike.

With five decades under its belt, the Telluride Film Festival is a testament to the dedication of individuals like Stella and Bill Pence, Tom Luddy, James Card, and now Julie Huntsinger. It’s a celebration of cinema that transcends the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, focusing on the art and the people who create it.

When asked to rank festivals, Jenkins declines, noting that each festival holds a unique place in his heart. However, Telluride undoubtedly has a special spot. It’s a place where filmmakers and film lovers come together, where barriers are broken down, and where art takes center stage.

In the end, Jenkins sums it up simply: “Look, I love film festivals.” And for him, Telluride will always have his heart, just as it has captured the hearts of countless others.


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