When Telluride Film Festival founders Bill and Stella Pence moved to Portsmouth in the late 1990s, they wanted to do something special for the new city they called home. After nearly a quarter-century of hosting their annual film festival in Colorado, the choice was clear — they’d bring a little bit of Telluride to Portsmouth.
“We decided to do what we knew best,” Pence said.
That was in 1999. Now, 17 years later, the festival has become a Seacoast tradition. Each year, Pence selects six films from the Colorado festival’s line-up and screens them at The Music Hall throughout the weekend. This year’s festival takes place Sept. 18-20 at The Music Hall and The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth.
Telluride by the Sea is a sort of cinematic sneak preview for Seacoast moviegoers, according to Chris Curtis, The Music Hall’s programming coordinator. The Telluride festival in Colorado takes place each year over Labor Day weekend, and it’s an early stop on the international film festival circuit. The films screened at Telluride are often appearing on screen for the first or maybe second time. That means that when the films make it to Telluride by the Sea, local audiences are seeing fresh films on their way to prestigious festivals in Toronto and Venice, long before they hit New York and Los Angeles.
“It’s an amazing privelge” to see the films so early, Curtis said.
This year’s Telluride by the Sea lineup includes “Suffragette,” director Sarah Gavron’s film about the women’s suffrage movement in 1900s London that stars Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Meryl Streep; “Rams,” an Icelandic film about two feuding, aging brothers who go to comical extremes to avoid each other; and “He Named Me Malala,” a documentary profiling Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl who survived an attack by Taliban gunmen and became an activist for education and girls’ rights.
The weekend also includes “What’s up? Docs!,” a program of documentaries from Ken Burns, Kevin MacDonald, and Errol Morris that will screen at The Music Hall Loft. (Audiences may be hungry for non-fiction films this season — the same weekend, the Firehouse Center for the Arts in Newburyport, Mass., hosts the annual Newburyport Documentary Film Festival.) According to Curtis, Pence selected Burns’ documentary “Huey Long,” about the storied life of the Louisiana politician, specifically for this year’s festival.
“He knows Ken Burns well, and (the film) definitely is apropos of today’s atmosphere of wealth inequality,” Curtis said. Meanwhile, MacDonald’s “Life in a Day,” a 2011 documentary that uses 80,000 clips submitted to YouTube on July 24, 2010, “turns documentaries on (their) ear” and presents “a different way to look at the artform,” according to Curits.
The Pences co-founded the Telluride Film Festival in a “sleepy miner town” in Colorado back in 1974. Since then, it’s become an international event, known for screening films that go on to become critical favorites and major award winners. The festival also embraces cinema history with retrospective screenings of classic and lesser-known films, something Telluride by the Sea replicates with the programming at The Music Hall Loft.
Like its parent festival in Colorado, Telluride by the Sea keeps focus on the films themselves, and, according to Curtis, that’s why audiences flock to the festival each year. There are no symposiums or classes or competitions — all that energy and attention goes to watching and considering the films instead.
“This is our present to the city and people of Portsmouth,” Pence said.
On screen at Telluride by the Sea
Friday, Sept. 18
7 p.m. “Suffragette,” starring Carey Mulligan as Maud, a factory worker in 1900s London who steps into the women’s suffrage movement as it reaches an explosive turning point. Directed by Sarah Gavron, starring Anne-Marie Duff, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Meryl Streep.
Saturday, Sept. 19
2 p.m. “Ixcanul Volcano,” the debut feature from director Jayro Bustamante is an immersive story about a teenage girl in a rural Guatemalan village who, after a drunken encounter, alters her and her family’s fate.
6:30 p.m. “45 Years,” this portrait of a marriage stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a seemingly happy couple who confront a long-buried memory and find their relationship in question.
9 p.m. “Spotlight,” Academy Award-nominated director Tom McCarthy’s chronicle of the Boston Globe investigation that uncovered the Boston Archdiocese’s cover-up of sexual abuse in the Catholic church. Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams.
Sunday, Sept. 20
1:30 p.m. “Rams,” the dryly comic tale from Iceland of two septuagenarian brothers who live next to each other and have been locked in a decades-long feud. When one of their sheep contracts a disease, the brothers’ livelihood is threatened.
6:15 p.m. “He Named Me Malala,” from documentary director Davis Guggenheim (“An Inconvenient Truth,” “Waiting for Superman”), a profile of Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani woman who was shot by Taliban gunmen when she was 11 and survived to become an international activist for education and girls’ rights.
Telluride by the Sea takes place Sept. 18-20 at The Music Hall and The Music Hall Loft in Portsmouth. Tickets and a full schedule are available at themusichall.org.