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Barry Jenkins will be the guest director of the 2021 Telluride Film Festival, marking a coming home of sorts for the filmmaker, who swept up popcorn while working as a production apprentice at the prestigious Colorado event in the early 2000s, before returning in 2016 for the first public screening of his best picture winning film, Moonlight.
“I’m just trying to think, what am I dying to see projected on a big screen right now?” Jenkins says, of how he’ll program his portion of the festival. “Seeing a movie projected is a really precious experience, we’ve been locked up for so damn long. And that’s my only guiding light at the moment.”
The 48th annual Telluride Film Festival will take place Sept. 2-6, 2021. While Telluride is best known for its role in launching the Oscar campaigns of eventual best picture winners like Spotlight, Birdman and 12 Years a Slave, the festival’s guest director program is typically devoted to rediscovering older films. Previous guest directors have included Salman Rushdie, Stephen Sondheim and Laurie Anderson. Jenkins, who was still making his selections during an interview in mid-June, amid promoting his Amazon Studios limited series Underground Railroad, says he’ll be in particular looking to include filmmakers of color.
“I’m often looking for people like myself on those screens and some years I don’t see very many,” Jenkins says. “And so that’s something that’s not at the back of my mind, but the forefront of my mind. There’s so many of those films and filmmakers that I love, that warrant and merit space at a festival like Telluride.” Jenkins will be on hand in Colorado to introduce the films, to “give context and explain to the audience why I wanted them there and what they mean to me.”
Telluride has played a pivotal role in Jenkins’s career. In 2002, while studying film at the Florida State University College of Motion Picture Arts, he saw a flyer on the wall advertising the Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium, applied and got in, enabling him to attend screenings that year of films like Fernando Meirelles’s City of God, Pedro Almodovar’s Talk to Her and David Cronenberg’s Spider. “I just stumbled into the place,” Jenkins says. “Telluride humanizes filmmakers. The process of watching a movie, it reinforces that the thing is larger than life. And so, oh, the person who made it must also be larger than life, but then you’re in line at [Telluride coffee shop] The Steaming Bean and there’s David Cronenberg and it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s just a guy who drinks coffee like me.'”
Jenkins returned to the festival nearly every year for the next 18, at first setting up and cleaning theaters, later introducing films, conducting Q&As and selecting the short films. It was while moderating a 2013 Q&A at a screening of 12 Years a Slave that he first met his Plan B producers Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner and Brad Pitt, who would go on to back Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk and Underground Railroad.
“We feel lucky and a little incredulous that our long-time friend and very talented colleague has agreed to join us as guest director this year,” Telluride executive director Julie Huntsinger said in a statement. “The whole world knows of Barry’s gifts, and we’re thrilled that he is taking the time to share the films he loves in a place with people who love him dearly.”
Jenkins has left his own imprint on the festival. While programming the short films, he found himself lacking in submissions from Black female directors, and put out an appeal on social media and to programmers at other festivals. Through that process he discovered the short film Feathers by director A.V. Rockwell, who is currently making her debut feature for Focus Features. “I know these filmmakers exist and I have no doubt their films are as worthy as these. So where are they?” Jenkins says. “And then you go out and find them. That’s how, as programmers, as curators, whether it’s this festival, or Cannes, or the Criterion Collection, we have to be active because we can’t assume that work doesn’t exist. And we certainly can’t assume the work exists and that it isn’t of merit. We have to take an active role in opening and expanding the canon because the films are there.”
Telluride did not hold a festival last year, due to the pandemic, and organizers have added an additional day to the Labor Day weekend event this year to enable more spacing between screenings.
After so many years of attending, Jenkins has his own rituals at the Rocky Mountain festival, like taking a gondola ride when he first gets to town, getting coffee at The Steaming Bean, shopping at the Between the Covers bookstore or settling in for a gin martini on Sunday afternoon, when restaurants are quiet while many attendees are trying to fit in their last day of screenings.
“A lot of us have a very warm, intimate relationship with that place,” Jenkins says. “It’s not ours, we don’t live there. But for this part, this window of every year of our lives, we do.”
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