Mountainfilm: More than the Sum of its Parts*

I stumbled across Mountainfilm in the spring of 1998, a few weeks after I moved to Telluride.

A door opened. For a few magical days, I felt like an initiate to whom secrets and magic were being revealed. It became my favorite event of the year. Fifteen years later, it still is.

I have often tried to explain Mountainfilm to Those Who Do Not Know. I tell them about the mechanics: the ice cream social, the growing number of screens, the fact that you’ll have a conversation with Aaron Huey or Chris Jordan and it may change your life. But I am unable to convey the ineffable aspects, those things that are both the most evanescent and the most essential to Mountainfilm. They are the qualities that make the festival more than the sum of its parts. Trying to describe them is like trying to explain sex.

For the first few years I was a devoted attendee, living on PowerBars and Cowboy Coffee and too little sleep at that magical green-white moment in May when Telluride is slipping off winter. A decade ago, I joined the staff and tried to help, with debatable results. Then I moved East, had kids, missed a few years.

But the wheel turned. My business partner in Take One Creative, Jason Houston, hung a photography show at the festival in 2009. He returned to Massachusetts with a distinct and recognizable look in his eyes and a similar inability to explain what he had partaken. We were working together at a magazine, and so we started teaching ourselves to make videos there because nobody told us we couldn’t.

Our first video didn’t pass muster with the Mountainfilm selection committee (thank you, David, for saving us from ourselves). But for each of the last four years we’ve been able to premiere something on a Telluride screen. In doing so, we are putting our creative work before the community we most admire. It feels like BASE jumping. Each time I do it I want to vomit. Then I want to do it again.

Last year at The Palm, on the last morning, Tom Shadyac preached — there’s no other way to describe it — to a packed house of 600. He began by summing up the afterglow we individually experience in the wake of Mountainfilm: We ask ourselves, in the best possible way, “What the fuck just happened?”

I may not be able to answer that question, even for myself. But I know it’s important. It’s essential. And every year I can’t wait for it.

—Hal Clifford

*This year will mark Mountainfilm's 35th festival, and we feel fortunate to still be going strong. We owe our longevity to many people: volunteers, staff, audiences and, of course, many filmmakers, artists and guests. Some people who have taken the stage have helped shape Mountainfilm in Telluride. To celebrate their longtime involvement, we asked a few of these creative types to write something about their relationship with Mountainfilm. This blog by Hal Clifford (Stone River 2009, Eel/Water/Rock/Man 2011, Picture the Leviathan 2012) of Take One Creative is the third in this series.

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