“If you made a sign that reveals something you normally hide, what would it say?”
That’s the question independent filmmakers Gabriel Diamond and Candice Holdorf posed to passing strangers in their poignant documentary short What Would Your Sign Say?.
The film, depicting the quiet beauty found in silently sharing one’s vulnerabilities with others, was among approximately 100 feature films, documentaries, and shorts presented at Durango Film’s 18th Annual Independent Film Festival last March. This five-day event brings a spirited distraction from the winter blues as local, national, and international filmmakers and film geeks alike come together to celebrate the unique ethos of independent cinema amid the backdrop of scenic snow-capped mountains. And what a spectacular, jam-packed five days it is. Along with multi-genre films that explore the full spectrum of human experience, the festival also includes rich, educational panel discussions, coffee talks with filmmakers, fun and quirky events like a special screening of the striking 1920 German silent film, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (accompanied by a piano performance by Tellef Johnson) and, of course, parties. Here, attendees may hobnob with writers, directors, and other industry collaborators amid drinks and engaging conversation. “The festival is a great place for filmmakers to mingle with other filmmakers and possibly find a writer or a director or maybe a cinematographer from England,” notes festival director Cornelius Hurley. “We have tons of filmmakers who show up and get deals done,” he says. “That’s valuable. At our core, we’re a filmmaker’s festival.”
This year also marks the debut of two film shorts produced as part of the festival’s Native Lens Media Fellowship Showcase. In collaboration with Vision Maker Media, the program offers a range of workshops for American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians aged 18-24 years old that empower aspiring storytellers to explore the art of filmmaking and gain proficiency in various aspects of film production.
As a festival first-timer, I soon realized that, given the vast selection of films, meticulous planning would be key. My friend Beth, a seasoned festival attendee, shared some valuable advice: “Be sure to check out the film summaries and plan out your daily viewing schedule beforehand,” she advised. “And always chat with other attendees about what films they’ve enjoyed so far.”
First up was the feature Boy Makes Girl, which tackles the complex topics of free will and consciousness after a socially awkward software programmer creates a self-aware robot girlfriend. Like other mainstream films exploring similar themes, such as Ex Machina and Her, the protagonist’s journey blurs the boundary between humans and artificial intelligence, leading to inevitable complications and emotional challenges.
Next was Texas Red, based on the true account of an African American man hunted across Mississippi in 1940 by an unrelenting posse, and highlighted in the festival’s special programming, Profiles of Independent Film. This programming featured an extended Q&A session with the film’s director, Travis Mills, who in 2020 (during Covid, no less) completed the production of 12 feature-length Western films in 12 months, including Texas Red. “Sometimes, you gotta try things that sound crazy,” Mills remarked during the Q&A.
I spent one afternoon in the darkened theater of Durango Arts Center, viewing Past and Present Voices, a series of Native Cinema shorts highlighting indigenous voices across the country. Some shorts were lighthearted, like writer and director Ryan Redcorn’s Dead Bird Hearts, a sweet and humorous tale of an inept, antisocial Native American man and his dog. Others, like Remember the Children, were heart-wrenching, shining a much-needed light on the forgotten indigenous children of the Rapid City Indian Boarding School.
One adventure documentary, Between Giants, was also on my carefully crafted itinerary, and I looked forward to bringing my 12-year-old son along with me to the screening. The film documents two friends on a challenging quest for healing and connection as they bike more than 3,500 rugged miles across the Himalayas. The touching documentary, by filmmaker Maxwell Frost, took home the festival’s jury and audience awards for Best Adventure Film.
As Durango Film prepares for its 19th annual film festival, scheduled to run from Feb. 28 to March 3, fresh excitement abounds with the appointment of new Durango Film executive director Carol Fleisher, who takes the helm as leader Joanie Leonard steps down after 18 years of dedicated service.
Fleisher, an award-winning filmmaker with over 46 years of experience in screenwriting and film production and who has worked with the Jackson Wild Film Festival since the mid-90s, looks forward to this next stage in her career. “I’m so excited to help young filmmakers communicate through cinema and be a part of something that acts as a powerful catalyst for conversation in our community,” she says. “That’s so much fun, especially in our town.”
For more information on the upcoming Durango Independent Film Festival, visit www.durangofilm.org.