Telluride Film Festival: Movies get in touch with the land

There are hardly more striking film festival settings than this former mining town: an 8,750-foot-elevation box canyon flanked on the sides by sheer red-rock cliffs and capped at its end by a misty waterfall. So it seems only fitting that land itself — and in particular its custodianship — played such a prominent part in the just-concluded Telluride Film Festival.

Though the works in the 38th annual movie gathering covered an assortment of topics and themes, some of the Labor Day weekend festival's most memorable new films cast the land in a starring role, using terra firma as a narrative linchpin. Not surprisingly, some of those earth-first story lines were found in documentaries, but at least two fictional features — "The Descendants" and "The Forgiveness of Blood" —use the land for critical dramatic effect.

Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel of the same name, stars George Clooney as Matt King, a real estate lawyer and the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of inherited, virgin Hawaiian property poised to be sold to resort developers. The deal, which will bring King and his greedy relatives a windfall, isn't his primary concern, though. King's wife is in an irreversible coma following a boating accident, and the father of two girls abruptly must learn not only how to be a single dad but also, more fundamentally, an engaged human being.

At one point in the story, King remarks that families are like archipelagoes, "All part of a whole, but separate and alone — and drifting slowly apart." While the land is a metaphor for how his life is disjointed, King's decision about the property is a more tangible expression of how he can reclaim ownership over what he previously took for granted. "We didn't do anything to own this land," King tells his relatives at one point. "It was entrusted to us."

Payne said that King feels unable to say goodbye to both his wife and his property at the same time. "He's just midwifed one death, and he doesn't want to midwife another," said the director, whose last film was 2004's "Sideways." "He's always tried to be a nice guy and a conformist — 'I want to be a good provider' — and it's all kind of backfired." If King decides to ensure that the property isn't turned into the next Pebble Beach, he can also reverse the larger family's unflattering reputation as non-native interlopers — "haole," in the Hawaiian language.

As a filmmaker, Payne refused to shoot "The Descendants," opening Nov. 23, through a mainland, touristy lens. Hawaii, and especially Honolulu, in the film is populated with average-looking people — some use wheelchairs, some are homeless, some are old. "I've never seen that in a movie," Payne said. "And it's interesting to me — it's part of why I wanted to make the movie."

In "The Forgiveness of Blood," director Joshua Marston (2004's "Maria Full of Grace") travels to far more distant shores: a small Albanian town, and the land dispute that triggers a murder and a seemingly unsolvable blood feud between rival clans.

The film, whose release date has not been announced, is ultimately about how a family — especially a teenage boy — is transformed by the feud, and how ancient Albanian customs govern the resolution of disputes. But the entire "Forgiveness of Blood" tale is propelled by property — whose is it to begin with, and what are the obligations of ownership?

Under post-World War II communist rule, Albanian land was nationalized. Only after the country's 1990 regime collapse did the soil revert back to farmers, but the boundaries were not always clear. "Do you give it back to the family that owned it 45 years ago and was relocated, or to the family that is living on it?" Marston said. With land holding the key to economic survival for subsistence and small-scale production, its power grows manifold.

"To infringe on someone's land is to infringe on their personal being," Marston said. Consequently, the precipitating act in the film — a bread vendor's taking a shortcut through another clan's farm — is hardly a minor trespass and the penalty for it is almost beyond an American audience's comprehension.

Mohamed Nasheed, the leader of the Maldives and the focus of the documentary "The Island President," has put the ultimate price tag on his nation's land: his country's very existence. Lying less than five feet above sea level — "We don't even have one hill," Nasheed says in the film — the collection of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean with some 400,000 residents has more than a passing interest in climate change. If the Earth's temperature continues to warm, the nation could be totally underwater in several decades.

Nasheed, who was tortured as a political prisoner in the Maldives before running for office, is as charismatic as any American politician, and far more principled, apparently not beholden to any special interests outside of his country's future. "The ability to sustain human life here is very fragile," he says in the documentary, which does not yet have a domestic theatrical distributor. "The most important fight is the fight for our survival.... There is impending disaster."

Director Jon Shenk, who also did the film's stunning cinematography, spent many months following Nasheed closely, as he first vows that the Maldives will soon become carbon-neutral (with power coming from wind farms and solar arrays) and then tries to get other nations, including China and India, to support strong anti-global-warming steps in 2009's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

"He was willing to be out there and say what a lot of politicians are afraid to say, which intrigued us," said Shenk, who directed the 2003 documentary "Lost Boys of Sudan." In making the film, Shenk and producer Richard Berge said they hoped Nasheed could make an outwardly epic topic personal and understandable. "Climate change is so difficult to grasp and so difficult to generate world momentum around," Shenk said. "But there are real people who are going to be affected really soon."

There are many real people in director Micha Peled's documentary "Bitter Seeds." Unfortunately, a lot of them have died. Part of the filmmaker's "globalization trilogy" (the other films were 2001's "Store Wars" and 2005's "China Blue"), "Bitter Seeds" examines the astonishing suicide rate among farmers in central India, which by Peled's calculations is one every 30 minutes.

The underlying cause, as the film posits, is that cotton farmers over the last few years have been talked into abandoning renewable seeds for hybrids. The Monsanto-engineered seeds, it suggests, not only don't reproduce (forcing farmers to buy new stocks every year) but aren't really that much better than the variety they replaced, requiring more fertilizer and pesticide. As the farmers' costs go up and the global price of cotton is held artificially low by foreign subsidies, the Indian farmers become buried in debt, most at usurious rates. Unable to make ends meet, the farmers kill themselves.

"It's not just a profession, but a way of life," Peled said of the farmers in his film, which is also looking for a theatrical distributor. When the father of a family takes his own life, the consequences are calamitous. "The children of the suicide victims get victimized twice," Peled said. "First by the death of their father, and then by not having a childhood or an education. They are pulled out of school because they have to go to work."

Among the film's most vocal supporters at the festival was Alice Waters, the restaurateur and food and farming activist, who said the film raises urgent questions about everyone who tills the soil. "This is a movie about people who take care of the land," Waters said. "And if we don't have food, we don't have life."

john.horn@latimes.com

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