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Buzzworthy movies pack the lineup of 44th Aspen Filmfest

The Isis Theatre in Aspen
Kaya Williams
Aspen Public Radio
The Isis Theatre in Aspen.

The 44th annual Aspen Filmfest opens tonight, kicking off a week of thought-provoking movies curated by Aspen Film at the Isis Theatre.

The first screenings of the festival include a documentary, “The Mission,” about a missionary's news-making death on a remote island, and “She Came to Me,” a star-studded comedy about several quirky relationships. Between now and Sunday, there are 16 showings planned, featuring some of the most buzzworthy films of the year — several of which have already claimed awards at major film festivals like Sundance and Cannes.

“Anatomy of a Fall” (screening Sept. 22) earned a coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes this spring, and France’s Academy Awards committee has already shortlisted it for submission to the Oscars’ “Best International Feature” category. “The Taste of Things” (Sept. 21) is also on that shortlist; it won Cannes’ Best Director award for Trần Anh Hùng, who also wrote the script.

Other notables include “Nyad,” the first narrative feature from Oscar-winning filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasharelyi (showing Sept. 23) and “The Pigeon Tunnel,” a documentary that features the last known interview with spy novelist John le Carré (Sept. 24).

Hollywood strikes shape festival lineup

The number of screenings this fall is roughly par for the course at Filmfest. But if you asked Aspen Film’s Susan Wrubel how things were going to shake out earlier this summer?

“I thought, ‘oh my God, we're not getting any movies, this is going to be a disaster,’” Wrubel said in an interview last month.

Hollywood writers and actors are on strike right now, and that means stars aren’t available for the usual press tours. Wrubel said movie studios have been pushing back their release dates, and that impacted what was available for FilmFest.

But the shuffle also opened the door for more independent films and documentaries to shine.

“I'm very proud of the docs that we have coming for Filmfest this year,” Wrubel said. “So I would say that, because documentaries don't have actors, this has really opened up the field for documentary (works).”

And postponed release dates for some films might bode well for Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings festival in December; Wrubel said that program will be “incredibly robust” this year.

John Chau walks on the beach in Port Blair, Andamans, in a still from the film "The Mission." The documentary directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine screens at the Aspen Filmfest on Sept. 19, 2023.
Courtesy of National Geographic
John Chau walks on the beach in Port Blair, Andamans, in a still from the film "The Mission." The documentary directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine screens at the Aspen Filmfest on Sept. 19, 2023.

Screening Tuesday afternoon: “The Mission”

The first film on this year’s lineup is “The Mission,” a documentary that screens at 4 p.m. Tuesday afternoon. It explores the story of John Chau, a young evangelical Christian missionary who traveled to North Sentinel Island, India in 2018 in an effort to convert the indigenous people there; he was killed there by the Sentinelese, who live in voluntary isolation.

“The Mission” is co-directed by Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine, the filmmakers behind Emmy Award-winning documentary “Boys State.” Aspen Public Radio spoke with Moss and McBaine earlier this month about their new film in this interview, which has been edited and condensed.

Kaya Williams: Now I'm curious, there was quite a flood of information when this news broke. But one thing that stood out to me, and I think it's noted in the production notes as well, is how much unknown there was about this situation. (Missionary John Chau) was somebody out there on their own. There's a great deal about his background that is known. But there's some things, the course of events, that are unknowables. How did you navigate those as filmmakers and as storytellers?

Amanda McBaine: It's a great question. And I think one of the great surprises of this project really is, you know, we read this headline, as I imagine a lot of people did. And of course, we knew there was more to the story. But how much more story was really what we then spent the next couple of years digging into,

I mean, part of it is just wow, there's a tribe still out there in 2018, and still in 2023, that's had very little contact with the rest of the modern world. And that alone, was really interesting. How do you contextualize their history?

And then with John Chau, digging into his life story, and also even before him, the sort of history of his community, and beyond that the history of adventure stories, National Geographic — concentric circles kept going and going and going, and it seemed almost, at some point, like everything was related to this story. Of course, it's not, but we could have touched on a lot of things. And we had to narrow it down, really.

Jesse Moss: As is so often the case, there was much more to the story beyond the headlines. You know, there were a flurry of investigative pieces in the wake of John's death in the global media. They cast John as a reckless zealot.

And, in fact, the truth is stranger and more complicated. And that's really what we uncovered. You know, John had meticulously planned this expedition, this mission, for 10 years. This wasn't an impulsive act, he wasn't a crazy person. In fact, he's very smart, very likable, in some ways, very methodical in how he prepared to go to the island of North Sentinel and convert the Sentinelese.

So we were able to uncover, I would say, the hidden story of how he prepared and who helped him along the way. And as Amanda said, there is so much to the kind of hidden history and mythology of the island of North Sentinel and the people known as the Sentinelese, that we uncovered.

I don't think anybody had any clue that this island has exerted such a hold on the popular imagination for so long for hundreds of years. And so that there are really two stories here: the story of John Chau, but also the story of this place and these people.

Williams: Speaking of that popular imagination, there's a sense that there are some conventional tropes or stereotypes on both sides of the story, both for John Chau and the tribe. As you were making this film, were you thinking about those? Was there kind of a conscious effort to not fall into those conventional stereotypes of who this person might be? Or who these (Sentinelese) people might be?

Moss: Absolutely. It was important to approach John as the complicated human being that he was, and to try to find connection with him. We come from a secular, nonreligious background. John obviously grew up evangelical and really adopted a radical faith.

John was an adventurer and explorer. He loved the mountains. There were a lot of things about John and the trail he left on social media that we could connect with. And also importantly, what unlocked John's story for us was a letter that his father Patrick shared with us, in which he grieves for, and tries to make sense of, his son's decisions. I think, for us as parents, that emotional connection really unlocked the story for us in ways that we could deeply connect with it and connect with John.

Williams: It struck me in watching this film that there is so much archival footage available in part because of social media. And because you can have GoPros and record things and post things in all these places. There's also, somebody notes at one point, this notion of being a bit of an influencer on social media. Do you think that this story could have been told or could have even existed, say 40 years ago?

Moss: I think it has existed. In fact, the story that inspired John in a very different way, I'll say, didn't involve social media, but young missionaries from the United States who went to Ecuador, intending to convert an indigenous tribe and were killed — that story has deeply imprinted on film many people in the evangelical missionary community and particularly John, it touched him. He heard about that when he was 16.

And I think he really saw himself as following in the footsteps of those young, adventurous, handsome Christian missionaries who came to a tragic end. But I think, (with) John, you know, he was very prolific in posting. However, he did conceal a lot of himself, and the identity that he presented on social media was only half of who he was, and that was very intentional. He knew he was breaking the law. And he had to be careful about what he shared and who he shared it with.

Williams: Now, Jesse, you mentioned something about the grief that John's father felt. How, as filmmakers, did you recognize that grief represented and try to be sensitive to that while still telling as much of the story as you could?

McBaine: I think as parents, it's actually a parenting thing to do to listen and be open to people, regardless of what crimes they've committed. But also to me, what is powerful about (John’s father) Patrick's writing is that he's grappling with emotional personal grief, of losing his son. He's also grappling with the theological questions of why. He is also Evangelical, he also grew up very devout. Where did he lose his son, and whether or not that is still something he holds as his responsibility? I think that is a question that he will continue to ask himself, but we were very careful, I think in caring for that part of his questioning.

Moss: I would add, just creatively, one of the challenges of the film was an absence of visual evidence from John's contact with the Sentinelese. He left this incredibly earring diary, but there's no imagery and inspired by John's own love of comics, like Tintin and stories of adventure that he consumed as a young man, we decided to animate certain key moments in John's story, including his father Patrick's discovery of John's secret plan. And they conduct a kind of conversation through the film, in their written words, which we chose to animate, I think, in a very sensitive and gentle but also powerful way.

And then we also animated the moment of contact — which of course, we can't be precise about what happened. I think there's an inherent subjectivity to the animation that allows the viewer to bring their own interpretation to witnessing those events. And I think we're, we're very proud of how that brings the story to life in a powerful way.

Williams: What do you hope are the thematic takeaways?

Moss: I think there's something wonderful about nonfiction storytelling, where you start without a script, and it takes you in unexpected directions. And this film certainly did that. I think tying all those directions together is why it took about a year to edit the film. Because we knew it could say much more than simply the story of John Chau.

And I think it could, it can challenge our audiences, regardless of the place you come from, whether you grew up in the church or you didn't, I think it will force you to look at this story and look at John differently, and maybe ask yourself some questions.

I think it's a conversation starter, maybe a provoker, I think it inhabits something of a gray space. And that seems important to us. And I think that it's also a historical reckoning, which we felt was important for us to engage in.

And I think you know that the stories that we most love telling are smaller stories that open out into much bigger universes. And this is very much that. I think John Chau gives us the boundaries of the story, but there is, within it, multitudes.

“The Mission” plays at the Isis Theatre at 4 p.m. Tuesday. 

Actor Peter Dinklage plays the piano in a still from “She Came to Me,” a screwball comedy from indie filmmaker Rebecca Miller. The movie will screen at the Aspen Filmfest on Sept. 19, 2023.
Courtesy of Protagonist Pictures
Actor Peter Dinklage plays the piano in a still from “She Came to Me,” a screwball comedy from indie filmmaker Rebecca Miller. The movie will screen at the Aspen Filmfest on Sept. 19, 2023.

Screening Tuesday night: “She Came to Me” 

An opening reception at the W Aspen Hotel will break up the screenings today; it’s open to Aspen Film members and Filmfest passholders. Then, it’s back to the Isis Theater for a screening of “She Came to Me,” a quirky take on the romantic comedy from indie filmmaker Rebecca Miller.

Peter Dinklage stars in “She Came to Me,” as an opera composer struggling with some writer’s block.

He’s not finding much inspiration at home, where he’s married to his former therapist, played by Anne Hathaway. So she tells him to look for ideas elsewhere, and he does — in a dalliance with a tugboat captain, played by Marisa Tomei. Another relationship between two teenagers forms one of several subplots.

Miller, the writer and director of the film, says there’s an element of absurd humor to this story, in the tradition of “screwball” comedies from the mid-20th century.

“I think it had to do with just …. where I am at this moment, and the value of laughter to me and the value of seeing the absurdity of life,” Miller said. “That seems like a very humanizing force at this time when so little actually seems to be funny in the real world.”

The characters of “She Came to Me” are quirky, and much of the humor lies in their idiosyncrasies. But there is also drama in this film, which observes the eccentricities of mental illness and the perils of romance; Miller said that a heavier version of the same story could have manifested too.

“I wanted there to be a kind of lightness, almost like a big soufflé, but that you are looking, in some cases, at quite serious subjects,” Miller said.

“She Came to Me” screens at the Isis Theatre at 8 p.m. Tuesday. For tickets, a full lineup and more information about this year’s Filmfest, head to aspenfilm.org. 

This post has been updated throughout the afternoon with further details on today’s films.

Kaya Williams is the Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Reporter at Aspen Public Radio, covering the vibrant creative and cultural scene in Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. She studied journalism and history at Boston University, where she also worked for WBUR, WGBH, The Boston Globe and her beloved college newspaper, The Daily Free Press. Williams joins the team after a stint at The Aspen Times, where she reported on Snowmass Village, education, mental health, food, the ski industry, arts and culture and other general assignment stories.