Mountainfilm’s world tour kicks off its 2016/17 season in Aspen tonight, bringing more than 40 documentaries from its banner film festival in Telluride to the Wheeler Opera House screen through Sunday. This first stop on the traveling schedule is branded as MountainSummit, which stands out among the rising number of local film festivals for its awe-inspiring program focused on the issues that matter most to the alpine community. Now in its eighth year in town, MountainSummit (August 24—28) highlights the best of what’s shown in May at Mountainfilm—true stories about environmental, cultural, adventure, political, and social justice issues—along with a slew of special events that bring together filmmakers, world-class athletes, visionary artists, and thought leaders for an all-out celebration of the indomitable spirit.
Wheeler Opera House executive director Gena Buhler saw record attendance at MountainSummit in 2015, her first summer at the helm of the historic theater, and expects to see even bigger numbers in 2016—one reason the festival has grown from four to five days this year. “Most importantly, this means that we are growing the Aspen audience and encouraging more people to come and experience documentary film,” she says.
Buhler and her team attend Mountainfilm in Telluride every spring “with the aim to see as much as possible” so they can personally program MountainSummit just for Aspen.
“Meeting filmmakers and film subjects there allows us to see what and who would be the best fit for our audience," she adds. "We always look to craft a diverse program that highlights the lineup from Telluride, but we also keep in mind what our audience responds well to. David Holbrooke [Mountainfilm festival director] and I work very closely over the month of June to cohesively curate the program and find a theme. The key thing is that the most important stories are told.”
But out of the lineup of shorts and features to see, there is one that perfectly captures this year's theme: “Winning Spirit: Real People. Unreal Stories.”
On the heels of its Mountainfilm world premiere and a summer festival run at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival and AFI Docs, Almost Sunrise follows two Iraq veterans, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, both tormented by depression for years and pushed to the edge of suicide after they returned home.
Director Michael Collins, whose previous social justice films have earned him an Emmy nomination and a special jury prize for best new director at the Tribeca Film Festival, embarked on the project more than three years ago with the duo, who were about to set out on a soul-searching, 2,700-mile walk from Milwaukee to the California coast.
“My motivation came from wanting to create something that would shine a spotlight on the life-threatening issues that veterans and their families have to face on their own," says Collins. "As a civilian, I was doing some volunteer work with a veteran organization and learned that we’re losing 20 vets a day to suicide. My jaw dropped … I thought I heard him wrong. That was the moment I realized how disconnected our country is from the complexities of the military experience, so I wanted to make a film that would give us a starting point to say, ‘What can we do as a country?’”
Collins and his producing partner, Marty Syjuco, didn’t have a story in mind at that point, but soon after heard about Voss and Anderson’s Indiegogo campaign seeking $5,000 to help cover the costs of their cross-country walk.
“This became our vehicle, which was completely meant to be,” says Collins.
It’s also meant to be that Almost Sunrise ended up with a festival screening in Aspen (Friday, 5:30 p.m.). Adds Collins, “A big part of the film took place here, and it served as a very magical location for all of us. In the film, Tom undergoes his main transformation during a trip to Aspen for a two-week meditation workshop. He also met with Father Thomas Keating at St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, so now to come back and be able to share this special moment in the place it happened is going to be truly powerful."
Since his journey, Voss has gone on to become a meditation instructor himself and will lead a morning meditation and discussion on Saturday at 10:30 a.m.—just one of MountainSummit’s many immersive experiences throughout the festival.
Project Welcome Home Troops, the national organization which provides a multitude of services to veterans is featured in the film and is what garnered Almost Sunrise Mountainfilm’s Moving Mountains prize; a monetary donation to that nonprofit accompanied the award.
“We couldn’t have found a better festival home for this film,” notes Collins. “The opportunity to create an additional experience is an important way for us to continue storytelling. And it's not something we’re able to do on such an intimate level anywhere else.”