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Film In the Hills

A Life Changing Trip to the Telluride Film Festival.

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When Kacey Shungu watched Fire Unseen at the Telluride Film Festival, a movie about Nigerian refugees, she flashed back to sixteen years ago when she left her home country of Congo—as a refugee. The movie changed her life forever, and it would never have happened without the opportunity that East provided.

Every Labor Day weekend, the quaint mountain town of Telluride holds a festival in which movie enthusiasts from all over the world can gather to share the passion of film. The time is spent watching movie after movie and meeting the people who work behind the scenes. After several students filled out an application, Michael Brewer, Santiago Jimenez, Max Feher-Peiker, Kacey Shungu, Emma Davidson, and Hanna Mason were the chosen few to be accepted. While regular attendees and fanatics alike paid up to five thousand dollars just to see the premiers, the East students were awarded with this trip through the subsidization of the City Lights Program.

They weren’t the only students who attended the festival, however. Mountain View High School also showed up with six kids and Telluride High School with three more. A total of fifteen high school students in all of Colorado were fortunate enough to go to one of the most renowned film events in America.

Senior Max Feher-Peiker recalls, “The first day was exhausting. We traveled six hours, and then when we got there, instead of unpacking, settling in, and getting used to Telluride, we went and saw our first movie.”

Even as soon as the group, led by teachers Michelle Topf and Todd Madison, arrived in Telluride, the energy surrounding the festival was tangible. They barely had anytime to unpack before they were completely immersed in a world of classic movies and famous actors. Feher-Peiker admits, “It was an intense five days with movie after movie, discussing them with our peers and meeting filmmakers, directors, and some actors.” He remembers, “You’re not just passively watching the movies. You actually get engaged and feel like you are a part of the movie, almost as if you’re a character.”

In a matter of five days, the students watched a total of thirteen films. For the students, this experience traveled far beyond a soda-and-popcorn kind of entertainment. Feher-Peiker in particular got to uncover deeper elements of film that would’ve otherwise remained unknown to him. “You feel lots of different emotions and it’s hard to transition from a very depressing movie to a classic comedy,” Feher-Peiker says.

As Madison puts it, “It’s a shame we could only take six, because it’s such an irreplaceable event and the opportunity to emerge and connect with filmmakers and actors so personally is extremely unique.”

Only the second time East has been able to do this festival, Madison marvels over the opportunities presented to the students, “They got to  interview Emma Stone, and some kids saw Clint Eastwood and Amy Adams, but the big deal was Tom Hanks.”

Nowhere else would the students have gotten such honest, human, interactions with celebrities like these. Madison elaborates, “They weren’t just a name on a screen anymore— they were right there in the room with us, talking to us about their life’s work, their passion, their troubles, their failures. I hope [the students] took a lot out of that.”

Toph expands on the pure humanity the students witnessed at the festival, noticing, “A lot of the movies we watched are all centered around the theme of developing empathy for other people… One thing I’m hoping the students brought back was the need to be involved in the community and then need to be aware of when people need empathy.”  

Feher-Peiker explains, “It was a wonderful experience…Watching all of these movies allowed me to see different stories and the messages they were trying to get across.”

Shungu also feels that the festival changed her as a person. Watching Fire Unseen completely shaped her outlook on life. Describing an old Nigerian ritual, she says, “When Nigerians pray, they sing looking up to God, thanking him.” As soon as Shungu saw this scene portrayed in the movie, the memories came flooding back: “I am a refugee and seldom I have to remember. That’s part of my story and makes me who I am.”

She explains, “When I got the chance to talk with the director, I felt inclined to thank and appreciate him for what he did.” This film struck something in Shungu, and it stuck with her. She and the six other East attendees left the festival feeling more than just inspired.

“This trip changed my life, it inspired me to become a doctor and director. Now I’ve got the motivation I need to do it and never give up,” she concludes.

These students felt a moment of opening consciousness on this trip. Something that will last with each of them as they continue on in their lives, each with a unique story to tell. As Feher-Peiker puts it, “We are all full of stories that could change lives. Everyone has a message they want to convey to society. So, in a way, everyone has a movie.” 

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Film In the Hills