There’s an undeniable power in visualizing faraway places and lifestyles that are different from your own. It can open your mind to a sea of possibilities in concrete ways that are otherwise difficult to conjure, if not downright impossible.
That’s a phenomenon that rings true at the annual Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah film festival, which returns to downtown’s Trustees Theater for three days starting Jan. 19. The reliably entertaining and thought-provoking event has become a favorite of locals and tourists alike. It’s not uncommon for thousands of folks to enjoy an incredibly broad variety of award-winning feature-length and short documentaries over the course of each year’s stop by this traveling offshoot of the internationally acclaimed Telluride Mountainfilm Fest.
A big part of the draw is surely the opportunity to witness, as close to firsthand as possible, far-flung areas of the globe that are otherwise unreachable by anyone other than top-shelf adventurers, extreme athletes, brave cinematographers and natives. Each year’s roster of films contains a few handfuls of movies — some of which are less than 10 minutes long — one can describe without exaggeration as “jaw-dropping,” either for the sheer beauty of the landscapes they depict, or the envelope-pushing feats of human endurance and exploration they document for posterity.
Still, for those unfamiliar with the ethos of this worthwhile showcase, the name itself can prove something of a stumbling block, admits Katherine Albert, director of Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah.
“A lot of people will say to me, ‘What is Mountainfilm and what’s it doing in a coastal town? There aren’t any mountains here,” says Albert, adding, “And that’s true!”
“Mountainfilm started about 35 years ago in Telluride, Colo.,” she explains. “Over the years, it’s become a movement and a real tool for education and conversation. The power of film is significant and there are many creative minds out there with stories to tell, issues to highlight and, yes, sometimes incredible ski slopes to conquer. But, moreover, and most importantly, the mission of Mountainfilm is specifically to use the power of film to educate and inspire audiences to create a better world.
“So, while we don’t have mountains per se in Savannah,” Albert continues with a smile, “we do have lots of people who are interested in making a difference and learning more about our world and topics that are important.”
The Telluride-Savannah connection began in 2010 when our city’s own Zelda Tenenbaum (who’d regularly vacationed in the picturesque Colorado ski town) made the decision to arrange for the touring version of the festival she’d attended for many years to stop here in her hometown. The beloved and respected festival had grown from its meager beginnings in 1979 as an informal gathering of mountain climbers who spent their evenings watching films about that same pastime to, in Tenenbaum’s words, “a global event that touches over 65,000 people in 100 locations on five continents.”
“Telluride Mountainfilm is one of America’s longest-running film festivals,” she adds. “In addition to screening leading independent documentaries from all around the world, we offer coffee talks and special guests who visit local schools, military and seniors in our community.”
Over the course of this one weekend, Tenenbaum points out that attendees get to “travel the globe through films.” More than that, they are able to hear from and meet a number of special guests who travel here alongside the films they either made themselves or that feature them in some capacity.
“They tell their stories about the amazing things they have done to make the world a better place,” she says. “Mountainfilm is a celebration of the human spirit, and all that is good in the world today. It is about people making a difference.”
According to Tenenbaum, the overarching purpose of the festival is to “uplift” and “inspire” viewers “to take action and be better people.”
To that end, some of the unique films that would otherwise never be seen in our area include: the 17-minute short “1-800-Give-Us-Your-Kidney,” which looks at the ethical and practical realities involved in being both a kidney donor and the beneficiary of a kidney transplant. Its star, Harold Mintz, became one of the United State’s very first anonymous living kidney donors in the late 1990s, when he gave one of his kidneys to an Ethiopian stranger, whom he later befriended. Mintz will be on hand to discuss his story with the audience.
Then there is “Throw,” a profile of the young, provocative yo-yo enthusiast Coffin Nachtmahr, one of the most interesting personalities in the international yo-yo community. A misunderstood, goth-inspired loner from impoverished and gang-riddled East Baltimore who found his place in the underground yo-yo subculture, Nachtmahr has emerged as one of its most visible, talented and charismatic proponents. He has since started his own yo-yo company and dedicated his life to helping others find a creative outlet through the sport, as he has.
“Coffin is one of the coolest guests we have ever had come to Savannah with Mountainfilm,” says Albert. “I had an opportunity to meet him in Telluride last May and he even gave me a few yo-yo pointers. He is so authentic and a delight to be around. In inner-city Baltimore, the culture of violence is constantly pulling on the youth. Coffin, who stutters, was always picked on in school and found himself getting in fights. He decided to take up the yo-yo in hopes of finding focus — and in doing such, he is now a world-class yo-yo artist.
“He will be doing his routine live on stage here during Friday’s program. He is passionate about inspiring youth to seek activity. He wants them to put down their smartphones and videogames and opt for making friends with shared physical activities. His message is to get focused, get active and make something of yourself.”
That positive message to school-aged kids highlights another estimable attribute of this local branch of Telluride Mountainfilm: the Movies That Matter program, which provides free screenings of educational and motivational films to thousands of area schoolchildren over the course of the festival.
“Every year, Telluride highlights films they feel are particularly relevant to middle and high school students,” says Albert. “A group of educators design pre-packaged lesson plans for teachers to use in their classrooms both before and after the kids attend the festival. The idea is to get students excited about seeing the films and ready to participate in Q&A sessions at the theater. Once they’re back at school, post-screening lesson plans underscore the messages of the films, through a variety of subjects.
“We host several Title 1 schools and we have a few special programs for at-risk youth,” she continues. “We aim to inspire the young people of Savannah to see the world in a new way through film and to meet some of the personalities who have made differences with their lives — and now want to pay it forward with the kids. The cost of transportation for thousands of kids to and from school is very expensive, but we have wonderful sponsors and donors who are behind this effort. They make it happen. It can bring tears to your eyes to read the letters some students write after seeing the films and talking with the special guests. You can just tell that they ‘got it’ and you hope they continue along that path.”
Tenenbaum says she has been heartened by the steady growth in Savannah’s many cultural options, and pleased that this annual festival has played a role in that progress.
“I have watched Savannah transition into a vibrant arts community that attends literary, art, music and film events,” she offers. “Locals are really behind this and our audiences are as diverse as the population of this city. Our very first year, we used the little theater in the Jepson Museum. Eighty people came out, and it was barely half-full! Today, eight years later, we have moved to Trustees Theater where we can host up to 1,100 people per screening.
“Word is out that Mountainfilm on Tour is a great way to spend a weekend in January and we are delighted by that. It allows us to see places we may never travel to and learn about things we may never have opportunities to do.
“We may not agree with every topic presented, but we are challenged to think about the issue addressed. That creates dialogue and awareness.”
IF YOU GO
What: Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah
When: 7 p.m. Jan. 19-21; family matinee is 2 p.m. Jan. 21
Where: Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.
Cost: $15 or $5 for family matinee
The festival kicks off at 7 p.m. Jan. 19 with “Life, Animated,” a feature-length film by Oscar-winning director Roger Ross Williams. It profiles Owen Suskind, a young man unable to speak as a child until his family discovered a unique way to communicate by immersing themselves in classic animated Disney films. This inspirational story follows Owen as he graduates to adulthood and takes his first steps towards independence.
At 2 p.m. Jan. 21, there will be a Family Matinee. A group of films will be shown that are suitable for all ages. Afterward, children younger than 12 who show their ticket stub at Leopold’s Ice Cream will receive free ice cream.
Other Jan. 21 festival events include a 9:30 a.m. coffee talk with visiting filmmakers at Kennedy Pharmacy, 323 E. Broughton St., an organized bike ride in conjunction with Savannah Bicycle Campaign at 11 a.m. and a Veterans Walk with the Southeastern Guide Dogs at 11 a.m.
7 p.m. Jan. 19
7 p.m. Jan. 20
Mountainfilm Documentaries and Shorts Round 1
“Ace and the Desert Dog”
“How We Choose”
“Mile 19” and Q&A with film subject Johnnie Jameson
“Throw” and Q&A with film subject, world-class yoyo-er Coffin
2 p.m. Jan. 21
“The Wrestling Cholita”
“Angel Annihilates Alaska”
“To Scale: The Solar System”
“One of Those Days 3”
“Throw” and Q&A with film subject, world-class yoyo-er Coffin
7 p.m. Jan. 21
Mountainfilm Documentaries and Shorts Round 2
“Kamchatka Steelhead Project”
“Across the Sky”
“When We Were Knights”
“Iceland. Proven Here.”
“1-800- Give-Us-Your-Kidney” and Q&A with Harold Mintz, film subject
“Angel Annihilates Alaska”