Three different times at this year’s Telluride Film Festival, I saw the kinds of films that are so potent you forget everything you’ve seen before. One was Kelly Reichardt’s sweetly named First Cow; another was The Human Factor, a documentary about the endlessly frustrating attempts at Palestinian/Israeli peace negotiations, and the third was A Hidden Life by the enigmatic Terrence Malick. Any one of these movies would make my eight-hour one-way drive to Telluride worth the trouble, but to get all three is close to miraculous.
It really is hard to talk about the Telluride Film Festival – this was the 46th – without mentioning the stunning intersection of the dramatic natural setting and the movies in the theaters. The two different worlds bang up against each other the whole time you’re there. Sometimes place and movies blend; sometimes the contrast makes you wince. But they are both always there.
Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow is something of a western – like her wonderful Meek’s Cutoff from 2010. It takes place in the Oregon forest in about 1820, when the world of non-Indians was a few scraggly shacks with miners wandering the landscape looking lost and bedraggled. An Englishman who’s the only person with any money, imports the first cow to come to the area – the poor thing standing on a barge dragged up the river.
First Cow is mostly about friendship among outcasts. A cook for a bunch of thugs (John Magaro) escapes from them and meets up with a Chinese man. There’s a strangely elegant sequence in which they put a shack together and Cookie gently sweeps the floor. Later, the friend figures out that Cookie makes great buttermilk biscuits, so they begin stealing milk from that cow. Things don’t go well; there’s a touching connection to the present, and when it’s over, you know you’ve had an experience that matters.
Aside from the always visually dynamic talking head documentaries of Errol Morris, The Human Factor is one of the best talking head documentaries I’ve seen. The heart of the matter is that human character is always part of whatever we think is going on in history.
Director Dror Moreh, also made The Gatekeepers with retired officers of the Israeli Security Agency Shin Bet talking about what they did in the name of security. In The Human Factor, Moreh combines present-day filmed interviews with a number of people crucial to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations over about a 15-year period, and a trove of photographs and film from the time of the Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush and Obama years. The images show the postures of Yassir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin as they vacillate between coming together and moving away from each other. The photos register moments of anguish and moments of near agreement. Personality weighs in; people have worries and needs. Rabin is assassinated, Syria’s Assad dies at a critical moment; Bill Clinton is distracted by the Lewinsky affair. Yassir Arafat dies. Something always blocks the possibility for peace.
The Human Factor is an exercise in frustration, but also in understanding that settling the world’s most vexing and dangerous situation is as much about the people as where a line is drawn on the ground.
When the three-hour A Hidden Life ended, I knew I couldn’t see another movie in the festival. It’s an immense film with magnificent, imposing scenery, about a farmer in the Austrian Alps, in World War II who refuses to sign an oath of loyalty to Hitler.
Only a handful of people will ever know what he does, yet at the end of the picture, it’s obvious that this guy who milks his cows, cuts his hay and picks his beets matters as much as any human being ever.