Step Into the Story: Dispatches from the 37th Starz Denver Film Festival

At last year’s Starz Denver Film Festival, I entered a theater playing the movie Grigris with no knowledge of what it was about, who made it, what country it came from, or anything other than it was screening, and I was free.

Grigris—a joint production between Chad and France—is set in a small African town and follows Grigris (Souleymane Démé), a man with a crippled leg and a dream to dance. The movie floored me. Nothing about Grigris is cliché, inauthentic, or boring. The ending is like nothing I’ve seen before or expect to see again. As the credits rolled, I could not shake a very simple thought, “This is why we have film festivals.”

Grigris acquired a U.S. distributor, Film Movement, but as far as I can tell, did not receive any theatrical exhibition in the area. Thank heavens for film festivals. They provide us a chance to see these gems from world, independent, and local cinema on the big screen. Some of these movies will come to a theater near you, but a whole lot won’t.

Running from Nov. 12-23, the Starz Denver Film Festival (SDFF) is 12 cinematic days in the heart of Denver. Started 37 years ago by Ron Henderson and a few fellow cinephiles, SDFF continues to grow and provide Coloradans with a unique moviegoing experience. This year, SDFF will screen 115 features and 137 shorts, a total of 252 films submitted from 55 countries.

Acquiring, selecting, and programming those 252 is no easy task, as Boulder Weekly found out from Brit Withey, the artistic director of SDFF. According to Withey, SDFF receives “somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,300 submissions” from Withoutabox (an online submission service for film festivals) and another 400-500 submissions from “foreign sales agents, specific country’s national film organizations, U.S. distributors, etc.” Those 1,800 are then whittled down into the visual feast that SDFF is.

The theme for this year’s festival is “Step Into The Story,” and the journey begins on Nov. 12 with a screening of 5 to 7 at the Buell Theatre with writer/director Victor Levin in attendance. Starring Anton Yelchin and former Bond girl Bérénice Marlohe, 5 to 7 is a romantic movie set in the always-romantic setting of Paris.

Bérénice Marlohe and Anton Yelchin in 5 to 7. Images courtesy Denver Film Society.

Like Opening Night, Big Night, Closing Night, and two Red Carpet Matinees will be at the Buell Theatre. For Big Night (Nov. 15), SDFF brings The Imitation Game, a historical bio-pic about English World War II code-cracker Alan Turing, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. 

The two Red Carpet Matinees, Touch the Wall (Nov. 15, documentary about Olympic swimmer and gold medalist, Missy Franklin) and Keep On Keepin’ On (Nov. 22, documentary about jazz trumpeter Terry Clark and protégé Justin Kauflin), are both part of SDFF’s Spotlight on Colorado Program. Spotlight on Colorado is one in more than a dozen programs, including Cinema Q, Environment in Focus, First Look Student Program, Shorts-In-A-Feature-Length-World, Stanley Nights, and so on. The two programs this reporter is zeroing in on are Focus on National Cinema: Brazil and Women+Film. Focus on National Cinema: Brazil features 13 submissions from the country that held the world’s focus during this summer’s World Cup. Included in the program, a 35 mm presentation of Marcel Camus’ 1959 Black Orpheus, one of the more unique takes on the Orpheus and Eurydice tragedy from Greek mythology.

Sari & Alexan Walking Under Water.

Women+Film is an ongoing program for the Denver Film Society, but for SDFF, they are pulling out all the stops and bringing in some excellent work. I have already seen Walking Under Water (Nov. 17 & 19) at this year’s Los Angeles Film Fest and am happy to report that it is a magnificent narrative/documentary hybrid. Director Eliza Kubarska worked closely with the Badjao people of the Philippines (a tiny group who spend their working hours underwater diving for fish and items to sell) and was given unprecedented access to their community and way of life. The movie is visually stunning and a precious depiction of a culture that is rapidly disappearing.

From the Contemporary World Cinema Program, Of Horses and Men (Nov. 16 & 17) is set in a small Icelandic village that derives its income from a beautiful breed of horse indigenous to the area and the tourism that it brings. This collection of vignettes paints a lush picture of a small-town community that contains hilarious rivalries, grievances, affections, and camaraderie. The setting may be completely foreign, yet their actions and behaviors seem all too familiar.

Also playing: Foxcatcher (Nov. 19), from director Bennett Miller (CapoteMoneyball)Wild, the latest from Jean-Marc Vallée (The Dallas Buyers Club), starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed, whose best selling autobiography provides the basis for the movie. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence (Nov. 14 & 15) is his documentary follow up to The Act of Killing—one of the most disturbing and haunting movies ever made—where the family members of victims confront the perpetrators of genocide. Too heavy? Then check out the documentary 21 Years: Richard Linklater (Nov. 22 & 23), which covers the work of the beloved filmmaker. Esteemed film critic and writer David Thomson will screen The Drop (Nov. 15) and talk about the career of British actor Tom Hardy.

And that is the proverbial tip of the iceberg, 12 titles out of 252. Last year it was Grigris. This year, who knows? As Alexander Pope said, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” and that aphorism is never more accurate than when the lights go down, and the curtain goes up.

The Look of Silence.

The above article first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 22, No. 15, “Step into the story.”