Question: When is a film festival not just a film festival?
Answer: When it's the Mountainfilm Festival.
At least according to local movie enthusiast Zelda Tenenbaum - and she ought to know.
For the past seven years, she's worked tirelessly to arrange for this internationally beloved touring showcase of unique and socially conscious cinema to make a stop right here in Savannah. It took two whole years of planning to make that dream a reality, but this weekend's two-day engagement at Trustees Theater marks the fifth time the "road company" of this annual Telluride, Colo.-based event has brought a treasure trove of uplifting, inspirational, educational and yes, extremely thrilling movies to our neck of the woods.
And we're in good company.
In the last two weeks of this month alone, Mountainfilm Fest's 2014 Tour will also host screenings in Colorado, New Hampshire, Alaska, Minnesota, Missouri and California. February finds cities in New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Virginia playing host to the traveling exposition.
Those fortunate enough to have attended previous years' installments will have no problem understanding what makes this event such a repeat draw for viewers of all ages, races, ethnicities, genders, backgrounds and education levels - but for those who have never had the pleasure to attend, that attraction might best be described as the universal quest for adventure.
The kind of adventure one feels while scaling a mountain with one's bare hands or surfing in the Arctic sea in the dead of winter? Yes, to be sure. But not solely that type of thrill ride.
Featuring both long-form titles as well as short films (some running only a few minutes) which can be live-action, animated or a combination of both, the scope of Mountainfilm has grown over its 35-year history.
While initially it may have been correctly viewed as little more than a very impressive showcase of cinema which artfully documented the breathtaking experience of extreme sports and the wondrous beauty of nature, it now also focuses on the depths of human interaction with both mankind and our world, celebrating - in Tenenbaum's words - "adventure, culture, health and well being, outdoor sports and social justice."
"Anyone who dreams of adventure and/or making the world a better place to live is sure to enjoy this event," she says enthusiastically. "I love the fact that I can experience and learn about so many unique and exciting worlds in a single night. Mountainfilm has perfected the art of finding short films that entertain, engage and inspire us on so many levels."
The touring version of this popular event (held each Memorial Day weekend) spotlights standout entries from the most recent Mountainfilm Fest and serves as an overview of all the great films the festival has featured in years past, and which now reside in their continually growing archives.
This year's tour is no different, and the Savannah stop will include 26 films from around the world, most, if not all, of which have never been shown in our area before, and likely never would be were it not for this outlet.
They were chosen specifically with our community's needs and interests in mind and will be shown in groups (or "blocks") that range in total length from 86 to 170 minutes, and can include as few as two films and as many as 11, plus live introductions and question-and-answer sessions with filmmakers and Mountainfilm organizers.
Just a quick glance at the Jan. 17 evening block shows the diversity of material on display: the 3-minute animated snowboarding short "Paper Shredder" is followed immediately by the 48-minute live-action documentary "High and Hallowed: Everest 1963," which details the true story of "the greatest Himalayan climb in American mountaineering history," our country's first ascent of Mt. Everest.
"I would say that each film shown is quite unique," Tenenbaum says. "Some are humorous; some are full of pathos; some illustrate other cultures with great sensitivity and some are purely hair-raising. With a few exceptions, there is a message expressed in each film which makes them more important than the average adventure film. We do enjoy our adrenaline films, but appreciate that there is some seriousness behind them!"
This unexpected mÃ©lange of serious subjects and cinematic approaches mixed with lighthearted whimsy and intense action is in great part what initially attracted her to the festival in the early 1980s during her regular vacations in Telluride.
"At first, I kept this wonderful secret place and festival to myself," she confides. "But later, I realized the value of sharing it with others who couldn't attend each Memorial Day."
Once she learned of the organization's touring arm, she "found some other Telluride part-timers in Savannah who were enthused about the festival, and began efforts to bring it here."
Their first local sponsorship of the festival took place in the Jepson Museum's 220-seat auditorium and only drew a small crowd, but since then, the event has moved to the 1,100-seat Trustees Theater and gained a number of high-profile corporate sponsors such as Gulfstream Aerospace, which generously pays to transport hundreds of public schoolchildren to the event, allowing them to be exposed to eye-opening visions of remote locations and estimable role models.
Tenenbaum's organization, Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah, recently became a federally recognized nonprofit entity, and is moving forward with plans to expand its scope - patterning itself in many ways after the original Telluride festival.
"We have tried to follow their model, and have added 'Coffee Talks' with filmmakers or adventurers, as well as a bike ride in conjunction with the Savannah Bicycle Campaign and The Georgia Conservancy," she says. "We'll also have a panel discussion on water issues."
In the end, though, Tenenbaum stresses that while her organization's growth is steady and promising, and the event draws a large number of loyal followers every year, it's a constant challenge to spread word of this low-priced and - for many - unforgettable event to those who have never been.
She hopes the aforementioned new forms of outreach will help boost local interest in this weekend's shows.
"Mountainfilm on Tour is about storytelling," she says. "We try to choose films which combine extreme adventure with the chance to explore far-away cultures. In one evening, we can take you around the globe, have you sitting on the edge of your chair trying to remember to breathe, or leave you crying over a heartwarming story about someone whose actions were kind and impactful.
"From our comfortable theater seats, we can watch real people act in ways we might judge as bold, daring, brave, historic, mindful or just plain crazy - and be very moved by what we see.
"Mountainfilm is not just a film festival," she says. "It's a gathering of like-minded people who share mankind's challenges and who believe we must be good stewards of this earth.
"Come be inspired!"