May 16, 2015

2015 Judge Cheryl Strayed: The Power of Mountainfilm

“We are nothing without our wild places.”

Cheryl Strayed is a vivid writer, thoughtful dispenser of advice and a role model for aspiring authors everywhere. Her best-selling books include her memoir Wild, which tracks her solo through-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, and Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of advice columns. Strayed, who first came to Mountainfilm in 2014 to speak at the symposium, will return to this year’s festival as a judge. Mountainfilm Program Director Katie Klingsporn quizzed her about her favorite festival films, the power of wild places and what she loves about Telluride.

KK: Last year was your first year as a guest to Mountainfilm. What was your experience at the festival like?

CS: I fell madly in love with Mountainfilm when I was there in 2014. I’ve never seen so many beautiful, informative, moving and, in some cases, life-changing films in such a short time. Plus, I love Telluride — both the town itself and the wildly beautiful mountains that surround it in every direction. There’s such a strong sense of community at Mountainfilm, one that’s shared by the locals and the festival attendees alike.

KK: What films, programs or other aspects of the festival left the strongest impression on you?

CS: My favorite films from last year include DamNation, E-Team, Alive Inside and Living Wild. I’ve thought about those films and others several times since I saw them a year ago. They’re the kind of films that stay with you over time. I was so affected by them that this year my husband and I are bringing our children, Carver and Bobbi, with us to Mountainfilm.

KK: Your bestselling memoir, Wild, speaks to the power of wild places, which is a recurring theme at Mountainfilm. Can you talk about the importance of these landscapes for humankind?

CS: We are nothing without our wild places and the animals that live in them. In Wild, I wrote about my passionate love for the Pacific Crest Trail in particular and the wilderness in general. I wrote about how spending time in the wild can both reconnect us to our own humanity and remind us of our connection to all living things. Many of the films featured at Mountainfilm do that same thing. I love that Mountainfilm makes the connection between humanity and wilderness. We are not on two opposing sides. We are one. There’s an old tired narrative of “man versus nature,” but that story was wrong all along. If we go down, we go down together. The films offered at the festival — which tell stories about both the wilderness and human resilience — are a great model for thinking about the wider world.

KK: You returned in September last year to premiere the film version of Wild with our friends at Telluride Film Festival. What makes the town of Telluride stand out?

CS: Telluride will forever be a special place to me because it was the place where Wild had its world premiere. What an unforgettable day that was to stand in front of the packed theater with Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Jean-Marc Vallée, Bruna Papandrea and others who made the movie. Oprah was in the audience. I’d seen the film many times by the time it screened at the Telluride Film Festival, but I hadn’t seen it with an audience so it was really emotional. I could hear Reese and Laura crying along with me as I cried. And also, to hear the laughter of the crowd. It’s an experience I will always treasure. Telluride is a community that holds both the arts and the natural world in such high regard, so it was the perfect place to bring our movie into the world.

KK: You will be serving as a Mountainfilm judge in 2015. Can you talk a little bit about the power of documentary film as a medium?

CS: I love documentary films because so often they challenge us to do something — to take responsibility or change the way we think or live, to create new laws or adopt better practices, to open our hearts another inch or mile wider. My husband, Brian Lindstrom, is a documentary filmmaker and I’ve seen up close how the films he’s made have effected social change by changing both policies and minds. In his most recent film, Mothering Inside, he profiled incarcerated mothers in Oregon who are participants in a program called The Family Preservation Project that seeks to help the women nurture the bonds they have with their children. Just as he was finishing the film, the program was defunded and it’s only because of his film that there’s been a public outcry about that.

I think many of the films shown at Mountainfilm have that same sort of social impact. They tell stories that need to be told and reveal truths we must know. The films I saw at last year’s festival are all beautiful examples of the way that documentaries can occupy that space where art meets advocacy. Mountainfilm, by its very existence, celebrates the social power of art in a world that seeks to commodify it. Though I had so much fun spending those four days going from one film to the next, I always felt like something important was a stake. It’s not just a festival. It’s a movement. I’m grateful to be part of it.

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