Telluride Documentary Filmmakers From Liz Garbus to Matt Dillon Preview Their Projects

“The Show,” as the Telluride Film Festival programmers refer to its annual feature program, is back this year with a wide array of documentary award season contenders.

Muhammad Ali, Arthur Ashe, Jacques Cousteau, Anthony Fauci, Francisco Fellove and the Velvet Underground are the subjects of various docus in this year’s lineup. The nonfiction lineup also includes films about cows, rivers, caves, and family dynamics.

The secretive Telluride team unveiled the 2021 program just 24 hours before the festival begins. “The festival directors are always dedicated to programming what they believe to be the best films of the year,” a fest spokesperson said. “And our documentary lineup reflects that.”

Liz Garbus and Sam Pollard were supposed to attend last year’s fest with “All In: The Fight for Democracy” and “MLK/FBI,” respectively. This year, both of the Oscar-nominated helmers will be in the small Colorado community for the premieres of their latest docus – Garbus’ “Becoming Cousteau” and Pollard’s “Citizen Ashe,” which he co-directed with Rex Miller.

National Geographic first approached Garbus at Sundance 2015 about making a doc about Cousteau, the French sea explorer who spent decades warning the world about the climate crisis.

Four years later, she was granted exclusive access to a treasure trove of archives via the Cousteau Society. The doc offers recorded perspectives on Cousteau’s career and family life from colleagues in diving and filmmaking as well as never-before-seen footage of the Aqua Lung inventor-environmentalist and Oscar-winning filmmaker. While much of the film is told through archival footage, Garbus also did sit-down interviews with Cousteau’s family and friends; you won’t see any present-day talking heads during the film, however.

“I wanted the viewer to live in (Cousteau’s) world,” Garbus explains. “He was a filmmaker and I wanted audiences coming to him for the first time to be living in his visual world. I didn’t want to see a picture of somebody thinking about something that happened 40 years ago in a living room that had nothing to do with the experience.” (“Becoming Cousteau” is also screening at the Toronto Intl. Film Festival.)

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Arthur Ashe and Nelson Mandela in “Citizen Ashe” ©Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe/Courtesy CNN Films

CNN Films and HBO Max’s “Citizen Ashe” also relies heavily on archival materials to tell the story of tennis legend and humanitarian, Arthur Ashe. Miller spent time developing a relationship with Ashe’s widow, Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and reached out to writer Arnold Rampersad, who co-wrote “Days of Grace: A Memoir” with Ashe. Rampersad had thousands of hours’ worth of taped recording with the tennis-great, which he allowed Miller to use for the film.

“It was always my intention to have this a story told mostly from inside of Arthur’s head and in his voice,” says Miller.

The doc chronicles Ashe’s success on the tennis court as well as his not so widely known career in social activism on behalf of civil rights and global human rights.

“Getting access to the voiceover from Arthur was like gold,” says co-director Pollard, “because he was introspective and had very nuanced responses and reactions. Imagine this man coming up at the height of the Civil Rights movement, where black athletes like Bill Russell, Jim Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali were outspoken activists. Arthur’s approach was different.”

Pollard says Ashe’s subtlety is one of the reasons why many young people today don’t know the tennis star.

“If you took a survey of 20 young African American people or 20 young white people, they will all know who Muhammad Ali is,” says Pollard. “I bet you that among Black and white young people, maybe one or two knows who Ashe is.”

Telluride audiences will be able to discover Ashe and be reminded of Ali via Ken Burns’ four-part documentary “Muhammad Ali.” The PBS series examines the legendary boxer’s life and career. Todd Haynes will also attend Telluride with his Apple TV Plus film “The Velvet Underground,” about the hugely influential 1960s avant-garde group. “The Velvet Underground” premiered at Cannes in July and will screen at the upcoming New York Film Festival.

Another music documentary coming to Telluride is Matt Dillon’s first feature documentary. “El Gran Fellove,” which is making its North American debut after a 2020 San Sebastian world premiere. Dillon’s film chronicles Fellove’s life as a struggling musician in Cuba, his eventual success in Mexico, and the contagious love he had for music until his death in 2013. The actor-director began shooting back in 1999, but due to “life and work” did not start editing his footage until a few years ago.

“Making a documentary was the hardest thing I have ever done because I’m primarily an actor,” says Dillon, who co-wrote and directed “City of Ghosts” in 2003. “I’ve been used to working from a blueprint — a script. So, for a while there I wasn’t sure what (this documentary) was, but I never gave up on the project and I never lost interest in the music.” A distributor for “El Gran Fellove” has not yet been announced.

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Matt Dillon and Francisco Fellove Courtesy

In addition to “Becoming Cousteau,” National Geographic Documentary Film has “The Rescue” from Oscar winning directors E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”) and “Fauci” from Emmy winners John Hoffman and Janet Tobias. Vasarhelyi and Chin use never-before-seen material and exclusive interviews to tell the dramatic 2018 rescue of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave.

“We were attracted to the project for a few reasons,” says Vasarhelyi. “One — the insurmountable odds. And also the characters — you couldn’t write characters like this.

“Additionally, Jimmy and I were really moved by the idea that this is a story about what connects us and our common humanity. We started working on this movie before the pandemic, but in the past two years we have all experienced isolation and the underlining of political differences. Telling a story about the connection of our common humanity has only become more opportune.”

Hoffman and Tobias’ doc about Dr. Anthony Fauci focuses on how the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases became America’s most unlikely cultural icon during the COVID-19 pandemic. The film also details his responses to 40 years worth of outbreaks, including HIV/AIDS, SARS, and Ebola.

“This film is about a man whose character was forged in AIDS and tested in COVID,” says Hoffman. “I would never describe it as a love letter. I think that he’s deserving of incredible respect, and I hope that the film portrays that but he’s human. He’s also deserving of criticism.”

“Fauci” comes from Story Syndicate, the production company founded by Garbus and Oscar-winner Dan Cogan, her spouse. The company also produced HBO’s three-part documentary series, “Nuclear Family,” which will premiere at Telluride. The series focuses on Ry Russo-Young, who turns the camera on her own past to explore the meaning of family.

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Nuclear Family Courtesy

L.A.-based Concordia Studio, co-founded by Oscar-winning director Davis Guggenheim, has two docus at Telluride this year — Emelie Mahdavian’s “Bitterbrush,” about two young women navigating an isolated landscape of the American West, and Robert Greene’s “Procession,” about a group of survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests who battle for justice.

Also making their world premieres at Telluride this year are Jennifer Peedom and Joseph Nizeti with “River,” about the relationship between humans and rivers; Mark Cousins’ “The Story of Looking,” which explores the role our visual experience plays in our individual and collective lives; and Andrea Arnold’s first feature-length documentary, titled “Cow,” about a dairy cow named Luma. (“Cow” premiered at Cannes in July.)