Mountaineers in a mountain range
'The Sanctity of Space' is screening at Mountain film in Telluride, Colorado, from May 26 to 30. (Photo: 'The Sanctity of Space')

4 Documentaries We Can’t Wait to See at the Mountainfilm Festival

The beloved annual gathering is in person again in Telluride, Colorado, and screening some of the most exciting adventure films of the year

Mountaineers in a mountain range

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Mountainfilm has been held in the heart of the San Juan Mountains every Memorial Day weekend for 44 years. The festival brings together athletes, filmmakers, and cinephiles to the picturesque town of Telluride, Colorado, to watch hundreds of the year’s best adventure films and attend talks with movers and shakers in the outdoor world (in 2019, once such conversation featured Oprah and Cheryl Strayed), often around themes of social and environmental justice. This year, from May 26 to 30, the event is making its long-awaited return to full in-person screenings after going virtual for two years. (You can purchase passes here.) In-person festival attendees can expect talks, presentations, and 130 films about everything from adventure in the Greater Ranges to illegal wildlife trafficking. If you can’t make it all the way to Telluride, don’t worry: the festival will move online from May 31 to June 7 for those who want to watch from vans and couches near and far. Later this year, keep your eyes out for the Mountainfilm World Tour, coming to a town near you with a selection of highlights from the festival.

Here are the four feature films we’re most excited about.

The Territory

Woman near body of water
The Territory is both visually beautiful and critically important. (Photo: Courtesy Mountainfilm)

The Territory, which took home the Audience Award for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, follows the Indigenous Uru-eu-wau-wau people in the Brazilian Amazon as they fight to protect their land—“an island of rainforest surrounded by farms”—against rapid deforestation at the hand of illegal logging and farming.

In the 1980s, the Brazilian government first contacted the Uru-eu-wau-wau, who live on a reservation in the state of Rondônia. Since then, their population, once in the thousands, has dwindled to fewer than 200. Director Alex Pritz tells the story of this fight through footage captured over three years and embeds with both the invaders and the Uru-eu-wau-wau so viewers can get to know both groups. We watch as the Uru-eu-wau-wau take weapons into the forest to look for invaders and as the farmers, who are looking to clear the land to build their homes, burn down swaths of forest. The film, shot by Pritz and co-cinematographer Tangae Uru-eu-wau-wau, a member of the tribe, is both visually beautiful and critically important. The race to protect the rainforest and the existence of this tribe is ongoing and urgent.

The Sanctity of Space

The Sanctity of Space, the highly anticipated film by Renan Ozturk (Meru, Sherpa, Into the Mind) delivers more of the stunning high-altitude cinematography we’ve come to expect from him. Ozturk and co-director Freddie Wilkinson, a professional climber and guide, set out with fellow climber Zach Smith to attempt the difficult Moose’s Tooth Traverse in the Alaska Range, which had never been done before. “There are certain skylines wilder and far more beautiful than the sum of their parts,”  writes Wilkinson in a trip report of one of their attempts. “The Fitz Roy massif in Patagonia, the Aiguilles of Chamonix, and the Trango group in Pakistan. These are places where each mountain seems positioned to complement the next, the ridges and couloirs folding against each other in harmony as if one peak cannot exist without its neighbors. The Mooses Tooth massif in Alaska’s Ruth Gorge forms another such skyline.”

The climb was inspired by a single black-and-white photo taken by the late aerial photographer and mountaineer Bradford Washburn, which captivated Wilkinson. The film chronicles the team’s various attempts over several years to complete the route, and the near misses, accidents, and deaths of friends they experience along the way. It also highlights Washburn’s legacy in the world of alpinism. The mountaineer, cartographer, and photographer was known for his first ascent of the West Buttress of Denali in 1951 (the current trade route to the summit) and taking photos of the Alaska Range while leaning out the window of a small plane, holding a huge, heavy camera. The Sanctity of Space taps into one of the core reasons we love adventure films: to witness a difficult feat up close and follow along as the subjects go after dreams they can no longer ignore.

Learning to Drown 

Learning to Drown profiles pro snowboarder Jess Kimura’s journey to build a successful career—including her many brutal crashes as she works out various tricks—and follows her through the grief that ensues when she falls in love with and then loses her partner, Mark Dickson, in an accident. Just as Kimura was hitting her professional stride—getting segments in predominantly male snowboard movies, winning a silver medal at the 2013 X Games, and creating her own all-female films—Dickson was hit by a car while out riding his dirt bike.

In the film, Kimura is both subject and guide, sharing her path as she works through her pain, navigates the turbulence of grief, and adjusts to a life without her partner. It’s messy, raw, and honest. Like the film Torn (which Outside has previously covered and is also showing at Mountainfilm this year), Learning to Drown doesn’t shy away from being vulnerable while confronting deep loss and grief. Kimura, unstoppable on a snowboard, has an intense fear of water. Through making herself learn to surf, she discovers that she can handle her biggest fears and her deepest grief and learns to adjust to a new life without Dickson. Director Ben Knight (Denali, DamNation) brings his usual level of sincerity and tenderness to this carefully crafted story.

Tigre Gente

National Park ranges in Madidi National Park in Bolivia
Tigre Gente boasts incredible access and beautiful landscape shots. (Photo: Courtesy Mountainfilm)

Tigre Gente shines a light on the global jaguar trade by following two people engaged in fights on separate continents to protect the threatened species before it’s too late. Marcos Uzquiano, director of the Madidi National Park in Bolivia, launches an investigation of illegal hunting in his rich and biodiverse park, chasing poachers with his fellow rangers. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, investigative journalist Laurel Chor is following a parallel thread, working to uncover the pervasive wildlife trade in China. Their paths cross when Uzquiano discovers the illegal hunters in Bolivia are selling the jaguars for parts to Chinese smugglers who are working to meet a rising demand for jaguar teeth in Asia. Directed by Elizabeth Unger, a National Geographic explorer and documentary filmmaker, Tigre Gente boasts incredible access to Uzquiano and Chor’s efforts and to beautiful landscape shots. The result is a dramatic, high-stakes story.