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Telluride Offers Surprises as ‘Malala’ Kicks Off Fest

The Telluride Festival got off to a buzzy start Friday, with a screening of the documentary “He Named Me Malala,” the unexpected yanking of the Aretha Franklin docu and, for a nice theatrical touch, a vivid double rainbow over the town.

Fox Searchlight execs were accepting congrats for “Malala,” which received a vote of confidence when fest toppers placed it in the high-profile “surprise” slot, an afternoon screening for fest patrons, press and industry that marks the unofficial start of the four-day fest.

There were audible sniffles at the end of the film, which seems a definite awards contender. However, the road won’t be easy: There’s plenty of competition in a great year for documentaries, and Searchlight’s bigger challenge is getting voters to see the film. Many people may feel that they already know the tale of Malala Yousafzai, her recovery from Taliban bullets to the head, and her fight for education rights, including a Nobel Peace prize at age 16. But the film offers new details and clearly conveys the Taliban horrors. And the emotional core of the film are her scenes with her family, especially her relationship with her father, Ziauddin Yousafzai.

At a post-screening Q&A, Ken Burns asked her father (who unsurprisingly drew warm applause from the audience) what he had done to raise such a remarkable daughter. “Don’t ask me what I did — ask me what I did not do. I did not clip her wings,” he said simply.

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The Q&A, in which Burns congratulated Davis Guggenheim for making “a very difficult film,” featured a satellite hookup with Yousafzai, who’s in Birmingham, England. She charmed the crowd even more by saying she’d just received grades from her pre-university qualifying exams, and it was “the happiest day of my life,” with the good results beating even the Nobel Prize.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other hot docus here, including “Time to Choose,” “Winter on Fire,” “Only the Dead See the End of War” — and “Sherpa,” which was announced Friday afternoon as a replacement for the scheduled “Amazing Grace.” 

The cancellation was a double surprise because injunctions are often thwarted, but even more so because Telluride is considered a haven for filmmakers and has avoided controversies in the past. So the rainbow was a nice reassurance that, despite the iffy weather, happy endings are possible.

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