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Telluride Film Festival, one Hofstra student’s experience at the 41st annual film symposium

By Muhammad MuzammalCOLUMNIST

The screening of the movie “Baal” during the 41st annual Telluride Film Festival. Muhammad Muzammal/The Chronicle.

The 41st annual Telluride Film Festival was held on Thursday, Aug. 28th. Besides the stars and film geniuses gathered in the Werner Herzog Theatre, 54 college students from all over the world were also assembled to experience film in a transcendent way.

Of these 54 students, three came from Hofstra University: recent graduate Dylan DeMarko, senior Desmond Thomas and myself. The three-student count was tied with University of California, Berkeley, University of Wisconsin, Madison and University of Colorado, Denver for the most representatives from any college.

So perhaps it was fitting that this year, Telluride decided to pay tribute to one of the rare film geniuses in the world, Francis Ford Coppola, director of “The Godfather” trilogy, “Apocalypse Now,” and “The Conversation.” A Hofstra graduate from the late 1950s, Coppola began a theater-oriented club named “Spectrum” in 1959, which is still a club at Hofstra today.

The college students took part in the student symposium, a highly selective program that looks for those passionate in film and in turn rewards them by giving them an unforgettable experience.

Part of the symposium program is to sit intimately with both traditional and contemporary filmmakers and ask questions. This year, the symposium filmmakers included Francis Ford Coppola, Mike Leigh (“Vera Drake” and the upcoming “Mr. Turner”), 25-year-old Xavier Dolan (the upcoming “Mommy,” his fifth feature), Joshua Oppenheimer (“The Act of Killing” and the upcoming, equally mesmerizing “The Look of Silence”), Guy Maddin (“My Winnipeg”), Ken Burns (one of the best historical documentarians of our time) and many more.

Memorable lines spread throughout these talks, but Coppola had perhaps the most emotionally resonating line: “Theme is your best friend.”

Even if he was giving advice on how to write and direct a film, his words rang true to the festival, as if there was an underlying “theme” which connected the films, like an omniscient mutual friend.

The theme was the ability of art to transcend the material and political realms.

Films such as “The Look of Silence” and “Dancing Arabs,” both had memorable viewings. “Dancing Arabs,” the semi-autobiographical story of the film’s screenwriter, pits a Muslim-Palestinian teenager against the backdrop of Israel. The film is a beautiful collaboration between an Israeli director, Eran Riklis and a Palestine writer, Sayed Kashua, both of whom acted like brothers at the screening.

North American premieres of sure-fire Oscar contenders included the absurdist, highly theatrical comedy, “Birdman,” the brooding, ominous “Foxcatcher,” and the intimate, exquisitely produced biopic “Mr. Turner.”

Despite the quality of new films shown, what can’t be forgotten is the classics that were exposed to students. Some were hidden gems, others masterpieces.  A 1970 bizarre, Lynchian film “Baal” had a rare public screening. Famed filmmaker Werner Herzog was present for the Q&A session after the film.

The movie gravitates around a sadistic character whose title can be synonymous with rapist or murderer.

Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” was also shown. It is one of the greatest war films ever made and a psychedelic, surreal commentary on the imposition of one civilization upon another and the horror that occurs because of it.

Despite the excitement in the air and the buzz from the presence of so many big name celebrities (Reese Witherspoon, Steve Carell, Channing Tatum), Telluride remained modest by focusing on what truly matters: the film medium as an art form and not as a business.

The students met with the filmmakers and may have even taken the occasional “selfie” with a celebrity, but the best individual they met was themselves.

The symposium serves as a mirror for young film students through which they can escape into an environment surrounded by those that think like them and show the same exact degree of passion for film as them. It adds up to quite a humble experience.

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