Students explore documentary filmmaking at Mountainfilm Festival

Students stand in street under banner with mountains in background.

Studying technique

At the Mountainfilm Festival, students viewed different styles of documentary films to better understand the scope of this kind of filmmaking. From left, Jim O'Connor, Ali Bottari, Wesley Clapp, Jonathan Sweeney, Jess Orser and Jenna Hobgood.

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s she viewed the documentary in a screening area at the annual Mountainfilm Festival in Telluride, Colorado, Ali Bottari ‘21, felt an emotional connection forming that she knows only great films can draw.

“The intimacy the director was able to achieve with his characters during their interviews was incredible,” said Bottari, a film, television and media arts major. “The hardest parts of their lives were shaping the narrative.”

The film, “Minding the Gap,” directed by Bing Liu, followed three close friends and die-hard skateboarders as they attempt to escape volatile family lives, the economic downturn in their Rust Belt hometown and other circumstances. It was one of many on display for Bottari and her classmates at Mountainfilm, a four-day documentary film festival that showcased work on environmental, cultural, political and social justice issues.

Each year, Mountainfilm draws world-class auteurs and independent filmmakers, as well as famous athletes and artists of many mediums for screenings, interactive talks, community events and other presentations. 

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“Students were surrounded by a community of filmmakers and film lovers,” said Ashley Brandon, an assistant professor of film, television and media arts who organized the trip. “The festival allowed them to engage and network with creators in a very informal and friendly manner.”

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Two men stand together outside.

Networking with creators

Students were able to meet and learn from filmmakers and other industry members during the festival. Here, Jonathan Sweeney smiles with Ben Masters, director of the documentaries “The River” and “The Wall.”

Each screening presented a unique experience for Brandon’s students, with different styles, techniques and storytelling methods on display. Bottari was particularly impressed by the skateboarding sequences in “Minding the Gap.”

“The follow shots drew me in like I was there myself,” she said.  “I voted this film for the Audience Choice Award because of how overwhelmingly raw the footage and story were.”

Another of Mountainfilm’s stand-out documentaries was “RBG,” an intimate chronicle of the life and career of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, directed by Betsy West and Julie Cohen.

School of Communications BA or BFA in Film, Television and Media Arts

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“Ruth Bader Ginsburg changed the course of history,” Jonathan Sweeney `21 said. “‘RBG’ was hands down one of the most influential films displayed at Mountainfilm.”

Sweeney praised the documentary’s honest and human portrayal of Ginsburg in both her legislative career and personal life. He also appreciated its universal appeal to both male and female viewers of all ages.

“It was only 97 minutes long, but every minute of that documentary changed me,” Sweeney said. “I have a more profound respect for my mother, sister and all of the women in my life because of this film.”

At Mountainfilm’s closing awards ceremony, Bottari learned she has a knack for picking winners. “Minding the Gap” took home Mountainfilm’s 2018 Audience Choice Award, and was named Best Documentary Feature.

As Bottari and her classmates boarded their plane home and bid farewell to Telluride’s pine forests and snow-capped mountains, they did so feeling inspired and ready to create their own work.

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“After Mountainfilm, I am definitely considering documentary work as a serious option to tell the stories that deserve attention,” Bottari said.