Telluride 2012: Errol Morris, Ken Burns Welcome the Next Great Documentarians
Sarah Polley, Joshua Oppenheimer and Droh Moreh represented the new generation at this year's fest.
A baby bear ran in front of my car as I drove to the Telluride Film Festival on Aug. 30, then scampered up the steep roadside cliff. In town, I ran into Oscar-winning documentarian Errol Morris, in Telluride to promote his new book A Wilderness of Error, about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case, and to introduce the premiere of Joshua Oppenheimer's film The Act of Killing. I told Morris I wished he also was presenting the film he tried and failed to make, a dual narrative featuring scenes from the 1984 TV movie Fatal Vision, which convinced about 30 million people that MacDonald is guilty, alternating with scenes showing gaping falsehoods in the prosecution's argument. "I tried to make the movie for years," said Morris, who stubbornly turned it into a book instead. "I thought it would be commercial."
I realized that Morris resembles a bear: like the filmmaker bear on Dave Eggers' brilliant poster for Telluride 2012, he is playful, willful, going where the hell he wants. And Telluride, which helped launch Morris, Michael Moore and Ken Burns (who was back at Telluride this year with the new doc The Central Park Five), is a playground for documentarians with ursine energy, blazing their own paths. (It's also a playground for bears -- inebriated customers once raced out of a Telluride bar to chase one down Colorado Avenue, and festgoers were cautioned to watch for bears at night.) In Oppenheimer's film, Indonesian genocidal killers re-enact and explain their deeds. In Sarah Polley's Telluride-screened doc Stories We Tell, her own family history becomes a Rashomon-like inquiry into what truth is. The North American premiere of Dror Moreh's The Gatekeepers, which played well, turned Moreh's interviews with Israel's top secret service officials -- the first in history -- into a probing moral history of the Palestinian conflict.
Telluride's effects on the documentary world ripple out influentially. Moore went on from Telluride to fame, and to a seat on the Academy's board of governors as a member of the documentary branch, where he has had a hand in changing its rules and influencing film history. When the future titans of documentary appear at the Oscars, it's a good bet that they appeared at Telluride first.