A ‘filmmakers’ festival’ for all

Browsing through photos from the 2012 festival, Colorado filmmaker Greg I. Hamilton finds the one that stirs the fondest memories is an image of himself and another participant wrestling the director of the comedy short, “Bobby Ellis is Gonna Kick Your Ass,” for his prize at Saturday night’s red carpet affair.

Hamilton attended the festival that year with his directorial debut, “The Movement: One Man Joins an Uprising,” a documentary about Rick Finkelstein, whose triumphant return to the slopes after a paralyzing ski accident put him in league with so many adaptive skiers who have overcome challenges to find redemption on snow.

“The Movement” turned out to be a huge success. It made it into 21 film festivals, including Sundance. Narrated by Robert Redford and Warren Miller and distributed through creative channels including Frontier Airlines flights, more than 1 million people are estimated to have seen it.

But flash back to 2012 and there’s Hamilton, decked out in understated “mountain formal” attire—i.e. shorts and flip-flops—goofing off with his new film industry friends.

“I love that sense of community,” he said, recalling a few “fun and lively” panel discussions, mixed-group happy hours with patrons and artists, and an awards ceremony that was anything but overblown. “Breckenridge was one of the festivals that fostered that better than many of the other ones I went to.”

“We really have become a filmmakers’ festival,” said Janice Kurbjun, the Breckenridge Film Festival’s executive director, citing the high level of filmmaker attendance. “A lot of projects have been born over the years from filmmakers interacting with filmmakers, and some come back. It’s part of why we’ve been able to grow so fast.”

From 2014 to 2015, the number of film submissions doubled from less than 200 to more than 400—primarily from word of mouth marketing, explained programming director Dianna Nilsson. “The festival is known for showing high-quality, exceptional independent films from all around the world,” she said.

While other festivals pre-select a good percentage of their films, therefore showcasing only a small number of submissions, the Breckenridge Film Festival is made up of 75-90% submitted films, increasing a filmmaker’s opportunity to have his or her film accepted, Kurbjun said.

Each filmmaker enters a work in a particular category, from Drama, Short Drama, Comedy, Documentary, Adventure and Animation to Spiritual—the latter not so much about religion, which is a popular misconception, but instead “films of the human spirit,” Kurbjun explained. With guidance from Nilsson, a panel in each category selects the films, which are shown at venues around town including the Riverwalk Center, Breckenridge Theater, Speakeasy Movie Theater, Breckenridge Christian Ministries, and sometimes Colorado Mountain College and Town Hall. There’s free children’s programming on Saturday morning, and for everything else, festival-goers are advised to purchase tickets early because they often sell out.

“It’s really a perfect place for the community to get together—whether someone just stopping by to visit their second home, or people who’ve been here from the beginning,” Kurbjun said. “There’s pretty much something for everyone.”

The Breckenridge Film Festival started in 1981 under the name Breckenridge Festival of Film. Originally it screened Hollywood front runners, before evolving into the independent film festival it is today. Moving forward, organizers hope to work with the Colorado Film Commission to bring some of that big-name programming back by featuring a few famous names in film, Kurbjun said, while staying true to the commitment to bring top-notch independent films to the high country.

“I felt like the curation was well done at Breckenridge. I enjoyed the other films I saw,” said Hamilton, who returns this year with his first feature-length documentary, “Power of the River.” The film takes a humanistic approach as it follows a local named “Good Karma” down one of the last un-dammed rivers in Bhutan. Although the Buddhist country on the edge of the Himalayas is famous for preserving its wild spaces, it has jumped on board with hydroelectric power in recent years, damming most of its rivers.

“There’s a bit of a blind spot for rivers and water,” Hamilton said, noting how rivers are seen as dangerous in Bhutan. “Rather than getting political, our goal was to make a case that there is another use for a wild river,” he said. “They may be dangerous, but that’s an appeal for adventurers who love rivers and a pristine planet.”

Filmmaker Michelle Carpenter returns this year for a third time with her latest documentary, “Klocked: Women with Horsepower,” which she entered in the festival’s “Adventure” category. The film highlights a mother-daughter-daughter trio of motorcycle land racers who have been breaking speed records at Bonneville and beyond.

“Women have been riding since two wheels were invented,” Carpenter said, listing important historical achievements of female motorcycle riders, including the 1930’s era journey of Bessie Stringfield, the first African-American person to ride coast to coast. “As humans we unconsciously judge people based on appearance within the first 10 seconds of meeting,” she said. “I think—or maybe I am hopeful—that female stereotypes are changing and will continue to change.”

Carpenter lauded everything from the quality of the films shown to the organizers’ hospitality to the “stunning view of Peak 9” she had from her housing last time she attended. “The Breckenridge Film Festival really values filmmakers,” she said. “It is one of the most professionally organized film festivals I have attended in the United States.”

For filmmakers, attending a film festival may be about networking—from exposure to patrons, producers, and media outlets to fellow filmmakers. But for Hamilton, it’s also “just a chance to let your hair down, to kick back and enjoy yourself” after so many all-nighters in “the creative cave.”

“I live in mountains of Colorado,” he said. “This place works for my creative mind. I went for mountain bike rides and hikes while I was in Breckenridge, and I walked to the theaters. I think part of it’s the place—getting out of the cities, out of the urban bar scene. It lures filmmakers who want to go someplace cool. To have a finish line like this—to me that’s the beauty of film festivals.”

Breckenridge Film Festival // breckfilmfest.org
Greg I. Hamilton // gihamilton.com // poweroftherivermovie.com
‘Klocked’ by Michelle Carpenter // klocked.us

Photos: Breckenridge Film Festival archives courtesy of the BFF, with photos by Jim Patalan, Jon Boal, Meredith Fox and Neil Groundwater, and ‘Klocked’ poster from Michelle Carpenter.