The Telluride Film Festival’s emphasis on documentary has not wavered in recent years. But the prominence of nonfiction fare at the 49th edition has arguably made this year’s Telluride the autumn Sundance, where some of the biggest buzz is for docs.
The lineup, kept under wraps until the eve of the fest’s opening on Sept. 2, includes 16 docs from novice and veteran documentarians, including Steve James (“A Compassionate Spy”), Matthew Heineman (“Retrograde”), Chris Smith (“Sr.”) Ondi Timoner (“Last Flight Home”) and Ryan White (“Good Night Oppy”). (Additional “secret” screenings have yet to be announced.)
The rising level of documentaries at the Colorado fest is largely due to the influence of Telluride executive director Julie Huntsinger.
“This year, there is almost parity with the narrative features in the [main feature] program,” says Huntsinger, who co-directs Telluride with Tom Luddy. “It’s not us actively seeking it. For lack of a better word, it’s what the marketplace is doing. Every year when we put the program together, we select from what is out there, and some of the best movies each year are docs.”
Longtime Submarine Entertainment sales agent Josh Braun senses a distinct vibe around docs at Telluride 2022. “It feels like there’s a different sense of the value around docs in terms of their positioning at Telluride this year.”
Another reason Telluride has a growing number of docs in its lineup each year is because they “are not remakes,” says Huntsinger. “They’re not derivative. It’s not something you’ve ever seen before. You are astonished by a new and compelling story.”
One example Huntsinger gives from this year’s lineup is “Squaring the Circle: The Story of Hipgnosis,” the first feature documentary from director Anton Corbijn (“Control”). The film, produced by Colin Firth, Ged Doherty and Trish D. Chetty, chronicles the iconic London art studio responsible for the most recognizable album covers of all time, including Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” and Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy.” Another example Huntsinger cites is Bryan Fogel’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Icarus,” titled “Icarus: The Aftermath,” which follows whistleblower Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov in the years since the original docu wrapped.
This marks Fogel’s first time at Telluride. (“Icarus” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival” in 2017.)
One of the many reasons Fogel chose to premiere “Icarus: The Aftermath” at Telluride is the fest’s reputation for launching documentaries that have led to discussions about international issues, such as Errol Morris’ “The Fog of War” (2003), Dror Moreh’s “The Gatekeepers” (2012) and Joshua Oppenheimer’s “The Act of Killing” (2012).
“While Grigory is a subject to whom we were introduced in a previous setting, this film stands on its own as an emotional exploration of a whistleblower’s survival and life in exile,” Fogel says. “It is also, by extension, an exploration of the fate of many whistleblowers, because Grigory is unfortunately not the only one to suffer consequences for shedding light on abuses of power.”
Morris, along with Ken Burns and Werner Herzog, are among Telluride’s biggest fans or, as Huntsinger puts it, “festival family members.” Burns will attend this year’s festival with his latest PBS series, “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” At the same time, Herzog will celebrate his 80th birthday at the festival while debuting “Theater of Thought,” his latest feature doc about the human mind and what lies behind consciousness.
Burns, who attended last year’s Telluride with “Muhammad Ali,” co-directed “The U.S. and the Holocaust” with Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein. The three-part, six-hour series examines America’s response to the Holocaust as it unfolded in Europe.
“It’s about how we didn’t do enough,” says Huntsinger. “It’s so timely. Ken manages to hit right on the topic that we need to talk about so often.”
Fellow prominent documentarians Steve James and Chris Smith are attending, for “A Compassionate Spy” and “Sr.,” respectively. Both docs are looking for a distributor.
“A Compassionate Spy” is world premiering at the Venice Film Festival Friday ahead of it North American launch at Telluride. After debuting several seminal films at Sundance, including “Hoop Dreams” and “Life Itself,” the director is looking forward to a fall release for his latest project.
“When I look at some of the films that came out of Venice and Telluride or some combination of those last year, it can be seen as a vehicle,” says James. “Robert Greene’s ‘Procession’ played at Telluride last year, and that was huge for that film to get distribution [from Netflix] and get a big launch.” (“Procession” made the Oscar feature shortlist last year.)
James adds, “There’s something very appealing about the possibility of your film premiering at Venice and Telluride in early September because if the stars align, either because you have distribution in place or you get it quickly in place, you could conceivably be out before the end of the year.”
Despite being the master maker of zeitgeist docs, including “Fyre” and most recently “Bad Vegan,” Smith has never taken one to Telluride. The last time the director brought a project to a film festival was “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2017. His latest film “Sr.” is about Robert Downey Sr.’s life and career.
“I love the experience of going to festivals and being able to watch what you made with an audience,” says Smith. “There are certain movies that really lend themselves to that experience, and “Sr.” is one of them.”
Award-winning film director and historian Mark Cousins is attending with “My Name Is Alfred Hitchcock,” about the directors’s body of work and how his legacy holds up in today’s society. Cousin will also receive Telluride’s Silver Medallion award in recognition of achievements in the film industry.
“Telluride is one of the hardest festivals in the world to get into, but once you’re in, you’re less overshadowed by glitz and stardom than in some mega-festivals,” says Cousins. “It doesn’t try to dazzle, so films are seen in a true light, a clear mountain light. But it’s also quietly full of very influential people — in cinema, journalism, technology, etc. Its counter-cultural power is almost invisible but substantial.”
While Cousins is among the many established docu filmmakers heading to Telluride 2022, Huntsinger insists that the festival is also a place for talent discovery.
“Wildcat” filmmakers Melissa Lesh and Trevor Frost are two examples this yer. The film, recently acquired by Amazon, focuses on a British Army veteran and a Ph.D. candidate working together to care for and rehabilitate an orphaned baby ocelot wildcat.
“’Wildcat’ is a nuanced and emotional film, and so we felt it was best to premiere at a festival that is not only prestigious but also tight-knit and supportive of filmmakers,” the directors said in a joint statement to Variety. “The slate of documentaries that have premiered at Telluride is dazzling and we are very humbled to be premiering this fall at the festival considering the company both past and present.”
Timoner’s “Last Flight Home,” acquired by MTV Documentary Films, premiered at Sundance earlier this year, a rare exception for the fest.
“We show either North American or world premieres,” she says. “Ondi’s film just touched us in such a way. It’s so beautiful, but the reason why we require the North American or world premiere is because of the whole secrecy thing. It’s expensive to get here. It’s expensive to be here. So we feel that if people have made such a commitment to be here, we better knock their socks off.”
Telluride has screened several non-fiction features that went on to nab Academy Awards nominations, including Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” (2015), Gianfranco Rosi’s “Fire at Sea” (2016) as well as JR and Agnus Varda’s “Faces Places” (2017). In addition, in 2018, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Oscar-winning “Free Solo” made its world premiere at the festival. But Huntsinger does not consider the Colorado fest an award season bellwether.
“We’ve always been doing what we do,” she says. “It’s all a bit serendipitous.”