One of the questions we asked candidates applying to become the new Mountainfilm executive director was what has been their favorite Mountainfilm moment. As I step away from my eight-year stint, I’d like to share my own.
It was Saturday morning of the Mountainfilm 2011 festival. Not unusually, I was back and forth between Hospitality and the Mountainfilm office, meeting and greeting and trouble-shooting. As I jumped on my bike at Camel’s Garden, I recognized a van parked in front of the hotel. It was the one used to bring Prudence Mabhena, and her specialized, extremely heavy wheelchair, from Denver. Prudence was the star of Music by Prudence, which we screened in 2010. Severely disabled at birth, with a truly angelic singing voice, Prudence completely captivated everyone who saw and heard her at the festival.
One of those people was Dr. Rick Hodes, a spinal specialist who works extensively, and successfully, with the kind of scoliosis that so drastically deformed Prudence. He approached Prudence at the 2010 festival and arranged to perform, with his team, several free surgeries for her during the ensuing year. Now she was back in Telluride, post surgeries, as a return special guest.
The van door was open, and I stuck my head in. Prudence gave me a big smile, but I could see she was struggling. Just then, Noel, an Irishman from Denver who was Prudence’s volunteer caregiver and who had arranged and driven the van, came out of the hotel.
“You’ve got to do something, Peter,” he said, pulling me aside. “She’s in terrible pain. And she needs some good, very simple food. She’s about to faint from hunger, but she can only eat certain things. We got in last night after a long, bumpy ride. She’s barely recovered from her surgeries and has several extremely sensitive pressure points. The house you all reserved for us has a ramp for the chair, but then it has a three-inch step. It’s a 500-pound chair, and we couldn’t lift her, so she spent the night in the van. I need to get her a room and something to eat right away, Peter.”
There is, perhaps, no better feeling than being just the right person for a job — especially when that job entails being of service to someone in need. I rushed into the Camel’s Garden Hotel and got a room. I then prevailed on Robbie at his restaurant next door to prepare a special plate of food based on Noel’s specific instructions. While that was cooking, I biked to the Ice Cream Social because Noel thought ice cream would be just the ticket to pick Prudence up.
When I got back, Noel had wheeled Prudence out of the hot van, and she was resting in the shade of the Camel’s Garden covered entry. I handed her the ice cream, and she gave me another of her brilliant smiles. “I love ice cream,” she said, almost whispering the words. “My favorite thing.”
I went off to check on her meal and make sure her room was ready. When I came back, a Telluride local, Michael, was talking to Prudence. Michael has a disability of his own, a form of autism, and I was concerned that he wouldn’t pick up on Prudence’s exhaustion. Just as I started to say something, however, he began to sing a beautiful spiritual. Completely uninhibited, a cappella, he was filling the entryway with sweet, soulful music. I looked at Prudence and she was, unmistakably, responding. The light was coming back into her eyes and the rich glow of her skin was returning. The ice cream was probably working a little of the magic but, far more I think, Michael’s gift of a song was the key.
Prudence was scheduled for a rehearsal at the Palm Theater that afternoon. After Michael left, I told her that she didn’t need to feel any obligation to rehearse. Noel pulled me aside again.
“Peter, you need to understand that she absolutely lives to perform. It’s what gives her meaning. And to perform, she needs to rehearse, to be ready. So, if you take away that rehearsal, you’re taking away her joy.”
I called Stash, our festival producer: “We’re on for Prudence at 2.”
She was there, on time, dazzled everyone among the theater crew, and gave another stand-up ovation performance the next day.
But it was that moment the day before, under the awning, listening to a young man lift someone exhausted and in pain with the power of song, simply and unexpectedly sung, that is my favorite Mountainfilm moment. It was not a moment shared with our audiences and not one recorded by the media. It was personal and private and, for me, entirely unforgettable.