Published online for Vagabond magazine. November 7, 2017.
On the festival circuit, Telluride is the most relaxed, if secretive: think blue jeans, a stark contrast to the dizzying glamour of Cannes or Berlin or Venice. Telluride is a place where the most famous of actors share the two-block Main Street with everyday moviegoers, trusting that no one will ask them for a job or selfie, and get to revel in the Magic of the Movies.
And magic it is.
For the duration of the festival, I was nestled high up in the Rocky Mountains, where I had to take a funicular from my hotel to the movie theatres below: a 15-minute- long daily pilgrimage through mountains, forests and even Black Bears, where I could think about the films that I would see that day, and the ones I couldn’t wait to see the next. Throughout my trip, I was lucky enough to watch nine premieres in three days, participate in seminars led by filmmaker greats like Ken Burns and Joshua Oppenheimer, rising talents like Chloe Zhao. In addition, I got to listen (more than a little embarrassingly star struck) to Q&As with Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike.
My favorite experience, however, was seeing Faces Places, an essay film co-directed by French New Wave auteur Agnes Varda and the photographer and muralist JR. It was the first official film that I saw at Telluride, save for a special student screening of Guillermo Del Torro’s wonderful The Shape of Water. The inimitably cool JR, donning his signature look of a black fedora and sunglasses indoors, so as to maintain a semblance of anonymity, a statement at once artistic and political, as many of his murals are installed along the walls of very tense national borders. He introduced the film along with Rosalie Varda, the film’s producer and daughter of Agnes Varda, to an excited audience in an impossibly tiny theatre (we all had to wait for hours to get in).
It was well worth it.
When we think of filmmaking, we often neglect the highly collaborative nature of film production. Faces Places is certainly an exception to the rule. It is a real collaboration on the part of Varda, a seasoned name in film, and JR, a talented and widely celebrated artist with little prior experience in filmmaking.
Similar to some of some of Varda’s recent essays films like The Gleaners and I (2000), Faces Places is a road movie par excellence. It purports to show the audience a realist glimpse into her relationships with others, as she joins JR in driving around the countryside of France to create giant, oversized photographs – big enough for a house, a wall, maybe even a castle – of some of the individuals that they met, and plaster the photographs on community buildings and homes as a means of celebrating their stories. In some instances, the project becomes socially and politically charged: in one of the stories we hear, she meets with communities in largely mining towns, where she listens to narratives of exploitation and injustice. In another, we see a young mother anxious and embarrassed about her photographic display featured so prominently in her town.
Varda, at 89, and JR, at 34, are an unlikely duo, but fit together so perfectly you couldn’t imagine a better pair. Varda’s eyesight is dimming, and JR (much like Jean-Luc Goddard, the famed director, and friend of Varda who haunts the film as would a ghost), never removes his sunglasses. Varda, whose work is so steeply rooted in the avant-garde tradition, is always forward-looking and equipped with a curious and unsentimental eye for storytelling. But in many ways, Faces Places is a film about memory and loss, about looking to the past and anticipating the future, finding the personal voice within the collective. Throughout the film, the viewer looks to Varda and JR as if they were old friends – so familiar to they feel to us, so intimate and universal. We share their smallest joys and their most seemingly insignificant moments of grief as if they were our own.
Doomsday filmmakers, critics and scholars – as recently as directors Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott – have oft predicted the “death” of cinema. Now there are a myriad ways to consume film and video, making the traditional theatrical experience, for some, more of a thing of the past. Moreover, it is a marvel that Varda, at 89, is not only still making cinema, but is still making great cinema. But the accomplishment that is Faces Places is a reminder that cinema is still as important and innovative as ever. It was a wonder to be able to watch such a film in Telluride, a festival created with the intent of showing masterpieces of the past alongside those of contemporary, forward-turning visionaries.
Photographs by Isabella DeLeo
Photographs edited by Shivani Nishar
Edited by Kahini Mehta