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Telluride: Barry Jenkins on Programming Movies That Challenge ‘Who Gets to Stay in the Canon’

This year's Telluride guest director takes a break from his "Lion King" spin-off to discuss an eclectic mix of cinephile treats and representational milestones.

Barry Jenkins, director of "Moonlight," poses at the 69th annual Directors Guild of America Awards at the Beverly Hilton on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Barry Jenkins

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

It’s been a long journey for Barry Jenkins, from his humble debut “Medicine for Melancholy” in 2008 to eventual Oscar winner “Moonlight” eight years later and the sprawling miniseries adaptation “The Underground Railroad” earlier this year. All along, though, there has been one constant for him: The Telluride Film Festival. Jenkins first attended the festival as a film student almost 20 years ago and eventually became a volunteer, then rose through the programming ranks to oversee the shorts program, a gig he maintained even after his career took off.

Now, he’s leveled up again in Telluride stature by serving as the festival’s guest director.

Over the course of this year’s five-day event, Jenkins will introduce six screenings of films handpicked by a director best known for blending his passionate cinephilia with underrepresented voices. His program does that, too: While Jenkins’ favorite director Claire Denis is represented with her debut “Chocolat,” along with Aleksandr Sokurov’s seminal long-take in “Russian Ark,” those choices appear alongside Isaac Julien’s experimental “Looking for Langston,” Maritanian director Med Hondo’s 1979 musical “West Indies,” the Palestinian sex worker drama “Garden,” and selected works by multimedia artist Kahlil Joseph.

The eclectic program will give Jenkins plenty to discuss over the course of Labor Day weekend, at least when he has some free time: Already in pre-production for the Disney-produced spin-off to “The Lion King” reportedly centered on Mufasa, Jenkins will be juggling a lot at once. In preparation for the busy days ahead, he spoke to IndieWire about a range of issues, including how his Telluride program is designed to challenge traditional film history and his relationship to the challenges of festival demographics.

Given your history at Telluride, what sort of opportunities did you see with the role of guest director?

The year that “12 Years a Slave” was there, they programmed Alan Clarke’s “Elephant.” I’d never seen it in a theater. Steve McQueen hadn’t seen it in a theater and Brad Pitt hadn’t seen it at all. During the screening of “12 Years a Slave,” that group ran over and watched Alan Clarke’s “Elephant.” I thought, “Oh yes, there’s an opportunity to see these things as they were meant to be seen on a big screen.”

You’ve selected a number of films that wouldn’t ordinarily show up at a place like Telluride. Kahlil Joseph, for example, is a multidisciplinary artist whose work usually shows in galleries.

It’s something people don’t really clock, but some of these screenings are free and open to the public. They’re movies that anybody in the town can go see. I looked at it as a two-prong thing. I wanted to show things for the locals who live there. It’s a group of films that maybe wouldn’t organically play at the festival, but also people who wouldn’t organically come to the town itself.

When did you encounter Joseph’s work?

I knew Kahlil from his music video works. I’d seen his Flying Lotus video for “Until the Quiet Comes” but didn’t know it was him. I kept encountering his work. I’d be in New York and he had an installation at the New Museum, or here in L.A., he had this wonderful installation at MOCA. I thought, “Man, this guy is in between spaces.” He’s very appropriate in a museum but also at places like Telluride or Cannes or Toronto. Right away, he was one of the first people I hit up. So much of his work is about the physical experience of the space.

The program doesn’t specify which of his works you plan to show.

That was one of the trickier ones to figure out. We’re going to see an excerpt of “The Black News,” we’re going to see “Until the Quiet Comes,” and the Kendrick Lamar piece “mAAd” as a two-channel projection — but we can’t actually put two channels into the Sheridan Opera House, so we’re going to play it as a double-projection side-by-side and superimposed. And then we’ll also have an excerpt of an installation he had at the New Museum in New York called “Black Mary.” I wanted something that the high school students at Telluride could come and see. They can definitely come to that and I think they’ll dig it.

In your program notes for Isaac Julien’s “Looking for Langston,” you write that it has rarely screened, which is true for a lot of Julien’s work. Why do you think that is?

looking for langston

“Looking for Langston”

With artists like Kahlil and Julien, scarcity is part of the thing. There’s a certain way it has to sound, an acoustic quality to the room, and a visual quality to the screen. They’re kind of between fine art and theatrical film exhibition — in between those worlds — and I think there are very few spaces where those worlds overlap and where it’s appropriate to exhibit their work. It’s not the same as just throwing up a DCP of “Moonlight.”

Another rarely screened film in your selection is “West Indies.” Where did you first encounter that one?

It boggles the mind that I got through film school and the majority of my twenties without seeing this film. It didn’t occur to me that this film was out there and existed. When you watch it, you wonder how it’s not canon. Of course, it is canon, among a certain group of filmmakers — but I hope by presenting it in this place, it can become canon for many others. Watching the film is an opportunity to interrogate who gets to stay in the canon and who gets pushed out.

When you watch the film, it’s really clear why the film was ill-received in France. It’s just telling a whole lot of truth by kicking up a whole lot of shit. You know, Khalil’s piece at MOCA was called “Dual Consciousness,” and I feel like I have to have dual consciousness about this program. Some of this is just shit I need to see on the big screen. But I do think the Telluride Film Festival should be able to ingest these vitamins into its DNA. Also, it’s a fucking awesome movie.

You’re obsessed with Claire Denis, so it’s no surprise you’re showing one of her films, but how did you land on “Chocolat”?

I went back and forth on it, because it’s so obvious, but I just had to damn do it. I’ve never seen it in a theater. She is my favorite. There is something in communion between “Chocolat” and “West Indies” in a very cool way. Also, Claire made her first film when she was in her forties. You have all these young people at the festival so I think it’s really wonderful for people to see that she arrived because she was patient, and she fucking crushed it with her debut.

Was there anything you wanted to show that didn’t make the cut?

“Speed”

I considered “Speed” and “25th Hour.” For that one, I was thinking of this idea of scarcity. As far as I know, Spike has ever played at the festival and it just felt like we had to have him at the festival. But he seemed too busy to make it out, and that movie is readily available. “Speed” is just a dope film. Filmmaking-wise, it’s just awesome, and would’ve been an amazing outdoor screening. It’ll have to be the sneak peek — on my iPad at my condo.

You started going to Telluride as a student. When did you start to realize how white it was?

Not until I got there. It was just a flyer on the wall. I had no idea it was super prestigious. I’d never been to Colorado. My professor said I should go there and I went in completely blind. When I got there, yes, I did realize, whoa. I think the only Black people in town then were me, my classmate Derrick Cameron — who runs the Ghetto Film School now — and a woman named Sierra Ornelas, who’s the showrunner on “Rutherford Falls” now. It was pretty cool group, but we were the people of color there, and we were like, “What did we get ourselves into?” But I’ve been back every year.

How much would you say the demographics of festival audiences have changed since then?

I’m speaking from the inside out as the curator of the shorts program at Telluride. It’s not a mandate that filmmakers of color have to be in that program, but maybe filmmakers of color don’t realize this festival exists or that they should submit to it, so I’m actively looking for that work. I’m just trying to make sure I see it, and if it’s as good as anything I’m programming here, we’ll program it. But again, I first came to the festival in 2002. That’s right on the brink of when all these new cameras came along — the RED camera, the ALEXA — where the cost of making films was dropping and the public acknowledgement of the lack of access for filmmakers of certain backgrounds was coming to a head.

Will Smith in “King Richard”

Anne Marie Fox

Now, there are more filmmakers from backgrounds like mine who are creating work and I think the festival has done a solid job of finding that work. There have been a few films over the years that I do think should’ve been at Telluride and haven’t been — peers of mine who have made great work that I was really hoping would be at the festival. But this year, there is one.

Which one?

Rei Green will be there with “King Richard.” I made my first feature in the same generation as his brother, Rashaad Ernesto Green. It’s really cool to see that cat come from just making his stories but now he’s got this big film.

You figured out this program while in the midst of promoting “The Underground Railroad,” which was a massive undertaking that you’ve said had a huge emotional impact on you — and then you had to spend a long time promoting it. How much did that take out of you?

I’m not done with it. People are still discovering it. It is in the thing that I’m most creatively proud about, and it’s probably going to end up being one of the least seen of those things. I don’t get numbers. But there hasn’t been a lot of cross-talk about it. Of course, I’ve drawn back from social media a little bit but also we just haven’t been physically together to watch it.

It must be surreal to switch gears for “The Lion King.”

We’re all working on it together, the whole crew. Everybody’s back. You could draw a line on the crew list for “Underground Railroad” and take it right over to “Lion King.” It’s a whole different way of working. The pace is much different. From “Moonlight” to “Beale Street” to “Underground Railroad,” we’ve all just been non-stop for five years working at the same register. Now we get to do something else.

One of the things I was really conscious about when working on this Telluride program was that the people of the town get to see these films for free. With this movie, it’s the first time that I legitimately know children will watch this film. I’m sure people saw me flip out on “Backyardigans.” I’ve always been interested in children’s programs. It’s exercising a whole different muscle. We’ve been smiling a lot. We had a great time working on “Underground Railroad” because it was challenging and pushed us — but there weren’t a whole lot of smiles.

You pushed back on earlier characterizations of this project as a “prequel” to “The Lion King,” but some new reports still refer to it that way. Care to correct the record?

No comment!

Fair enough. How the hell will you even have time to introduce films at Telluride while working on this movie?

I’ll have some work to do. But we’ve been working remotely for the last year and a half and we’ve gotten pretty adept at it. Even on this project, there were times where I was on the continent of Asia and people were in London, L.A., New York, and we were all on the same sets looking at the same materials. So I will be working at the start of the festival, in my real life, but then I’ll switch over to my festival life.

Adele Romanski and Barry Jenkins at IFP Film Week 2017

“Moonlight” producer Adele Romanski and Barry Jenkins at IFP Film Week 2017

Courtesy of IFP

Having curated all this work for a big screen at such a dire moment for the future of exhibition, what hope do you see for the future sustainability of showing movies this way?

One of the reasons I wanted to come to the festival was to vent about this. I hadn’t had an experience like this in a year and a half. I saw “Zola” in a theater with three people. It was a morning matinee. It’s kind of like coffee. I’ve had a cup of coffee for at least the last 20 years and that shit never gets old. You know why? Because it gives you the best feeling. Going to a screening a theater with a crowd — a communal experience where the sound envelops you — is the same damn thing. It isn’t going anywhere.

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