Flagstaff has made its mark as a mountain town with its hearty foods and brews, year-round fresh air, colorful holidays and festivals, vigorous sports like biking and hiking and a lively cultural life that beckons folks from all over the world.
In this spirit, since 2003 the town has also served up a stunning film festival that highlights its free-thinking and adventurous spirit—the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival.
Beginning with a two-day event that only half-filled the Orpheum Theater, the festival has expanded to five days with an ever-growing collection of films that tackle controversial and important social issues, as well as films that focus on the environment.
Ron Tuckman has been the festival executive director since 2007, after he was asked to take over the reins by Anne Walton, one of the original founders, along with Geoff Cross. Tuckman, who has traveled and photographed in Malaysia, Bolivia, Peru, China, Tibet and Japan, says the theme for the festival is to “educate, inspire and entertain” with expanded venues and a diversity of films. Tuckman says there are 67 films this year, up from 59 last year.
“We have some very exciting films this year,” he says. “Many of the films have been winning awards and will be showing in theaters soon.”
Two of those films, Tuckman notes, are “Brooklyn Castle,” about inner-city youth competing in chess tournaments, and “Escape Fire,” about the American Healthcare system. This year the festival will be using three venues: Flagstaff Photography Center, Flagstaff Bicycle Revolution on Mikes Pike and the Orpheum Theater, the primary site.
Tuckman’s interest in film goes back many years. He went to school to study film back in college, but switched to medicine when he couldn’t get his introductory class in film.
“But I never lost my passion for film,” he says.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Tuckman moved to Arizona in 2001, eventually heading up to Flagstaff, to get out of Phoenix and to be with the mountains here, he says. Today, the festival continues the vision of Walton and Cross who were inspired by the example of the famous Banff Mountain Film Festival, which they had attended.
Their goal was to bring outstanding adventure documentaries to Flagstaff, in a festival form, believing the basic premise would be a perfect fit for Flagstaff. Their modest idea not only survived but took flight, satisfying sold-out audiences 10 years in a row.
Tuckman, who works as a full-time pediatrician at Flagstaff Medical Center, says his festival job is fun, but also a lot of work. He traveled all over the country in search of films for this year’s festival.
“We had a lot more participation from filmmakers than we have had in the past, so there’s been a lot of research that’s gone into the festival,” he explains.
Tuckman says one of his favorite films is “Chasing Ice,” which screens Thursday during environmental night at Flagstaff Bike Revolution. “It’s a pretty remarkable film documenting the receding glacier,” he says.
The 90-minute film is by James Balog who used 30 cameras on three continents to show how glaciers are melting at a rate no one had previously thought possible.
Tuckman says the festival is a community-driven, grassroots effort, with about 60 dedicated volunteers, including cinema students at Northern Arizona University, keeping it alive and thriving. He is hoping the community comes out to support it again this year.
Expansion of the festival includes the addition of special events, such as the arrival of Southwest author Craig Childs (see interview on page 14), who is on tour for his latest book “Apocalyptic Planet: Field Guide to the Everending Earth.” Of great interest to audiences also will be some of the human interest films, including “My Name is Faith,” which deals with a rare but challenging illness known as reactive attachment disorder.
Another film with a compelling human-interest theme is “The Renaissance of Mata Ortiz,” being shown at the Flagstaff Photography Center Sunday at 7 p.m., about a Mexican ceramic artist and how he changed his small town.
The Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival also has a number of features with strong local ties, with some of the filmmakers based here. Also, some of the subjects are related to the area, such as a film called “The Last of the Great Unknown,” which shares explorations of Grand Canyon side canyons that have not been visited.
Another new film by local filmmaker Chris Gunn, “Caught Between,” is about what happens in the afterlife. “Streams of Consequence” is a 25-minute film by Flagstaff photographer James Q Martin and conservation biologist Chris Kassar, who started an organization called Rios Libres in summer 2010.
Their aim is to use multi-media to join the fight to protect the Wildlands of Patagonia from proposed dams that threaten two of the most pristine rivers in one of the world’s most spectacular regions.
The local connection also extends to students here who are involved in the Emerging Filmmaker Program, which was initiated in 2009 as an extra curricular workshop for students to help them discover and fulfill their passion for media production.
Tuckman, who is an excellent travel photographer himself, says he is hoping to get abroad again soon, this time to Myanmar.
“They just opened up the border,” he says. “I want to get there before its gets westernized. We’ll see how it goes. Once the film festival is over, I’ll get my life back.”
The ninth annual Flagstaff Mountain Film festival began Wednesday and runs through Sun, Oct. 14. Screenings are at several venues, including the Orpheum Theater, Flagstaff Photography Center and Flag Bike Revolution on Mike’s Pike. Tickets for individual events are $5 to $10. A festival pass is $80. To learn more, visit www.flagstaffmountainfilms.org.