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A life-changing experience

Journalism student attends Telluride Film Festival through Undergraduate Research

“This will probably be the greatest week of your life,” the moderators would constantly remind me throughout the initial orientation for the 33rd Student Symposium at the 50th Telluride Film Festival. I thought, “Yeah, it might be. But we’re just stuck in the mountains watching movies.” But as I was saying my final goodbyes to the last few students I met, I concluded they were absolutely right. It was. 

A group of about 50 people pose for a group photo in Telluride wearing name badges.
33rd Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium class photo.

I first heard about this amazing opportunity from Melissa McClinton, assistant professor of video production and immersive media. If accepted, it would be six full days in Telluride, Colorado, fully immersed in cinema. Knowing it might be a long shot for a journalism student from Reno, I started drafting up my application for something I might never hear about again. Applicants were tasked with writing a 700-word essay about a film they recently watched and apply their cinematic knowledge to analyze it to find a broader understanding of the work. With the large number of applications, I wanted to choose a topic that would grab the organizers attention. 

The 1972 cult film Pink Flamingos by John Waters was my choice. Having a tagline such as “an exercise in poor taste,” and being known as one of the most disgusting films ever made, my essay would at least bring some sort of attention to my name whether I was accepted or not. I discussed how cult films, such as Pink Flamingos, break from the mainstream culture presented in most Hollywood films and if successful, pave the way for future films to explore new ideas which were once considered taboo. Eight weeks after my application was fully submitted, I received an email which read in large, bold font: 

CONGRATULATIONS! YOU have been accepted into the 2023 Telluride Film Festival Student Symposium!”

John wears a name badge and smiles broadly while standing on a historic street in Telluride.
John Snelgrove on Main Street in front of the iconic Telluride “SHOW” banner.

Thanks in part to the Undergraduate Research Travel Award and a grant from the Reynolds School of Journalism, I was on a plane at the end of August heading toward Telluride, Colorado, to watch some movies! Well, it wasn’t only sitting in dark rooms for six days watching movies. One of the main draws to the symposium is the student-only discussions we have with many of the filmmakers attending the festival. But I couldn’t boast about what movies I was going to see or who I was going to be able to talk to since the Telluride Film Festival keeps their screening lineup a secret until the very first day of the festival. 

A large, black and white, billboard featuring eyes and forehead sits atop brick buildings.
The late French director Agnès Varda peeking over the historic Nugget Theater on Main Street.

The morning leading up to the kickoff of the symposium was filled with wandering around the scenic town of Telluride and getting acquainted with the other students of the program. But as the day progressed and we made our way to the symposium orientation, the provocative discussions about cinema that would be ongoing throughout the rest of the week had begun. The symposium allowed for conversations about cinema, which explored the deeper meanings of the medium. It also wasn’t a space that forced us to only praise the industry or the films we watched. The moderators encouraged us to be critical of cinema as that is what our most engaging conversations rooted from. 

The lineup of films curated for the student symposium consisted of new films making their North American debut at Telluride, as well as a few special screenings of classics. Some of my personal favorites of the festival were: Poor Things (2023), The Zone of Interest (2023), All of Us Strangers (2023), Víctimas del pecado (1951), and My Grandmother (1929). Telluride offers a movie-going experience unlike anything I would be able to experience in Reno. Each movie theater is treated like a sanctuary, and I was always surrounded by people who were fully engaged and appreciative of the work in front of them.  

A group of people sit outside on green grass facing a stage.
The Labor Day public discussion in the breathtaking Town Park

Following many of the screenings, students had private discussions with multiple filmmakers who were presenting work at the festival as well as other special guests who tend to go to Telluride every year. Some of the individuals we were able to talk to were Ken Burns (documentarian), Jonathan Glazer (director of The Zone of Interest), and Justine Triet (director of Anatomy of a Fall), just to name a few. These intimate discussions not only gave us a deeper understanding of the artists’ films screening at the festival, but we also received general advice from the artists on how they approach the many elements of their creative work. 

One of the best pieces of advice I received was from actor and director Ethan Hawke. Sorry, don’t mean to name drop! But along with talking about his new film, Wildcat, the conversation eventually evolved to where he was mentioning the essays of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. We all probably read an excerpt or two of their work in high school when it goes in one ear and out the other, but revisiting them as a young adult who fully understands their goals and aspirations, it is far more impactful. Hawke discussed the importance of intuition and credits where he is now to having that mentality when he was pursuing a career in film. I took note of that and have yet to stop thinking about it. 

As we repeated this routine of constant discussions and film screenings, I never wanted the festival to end. Many might think watching movies all day and talking about them would make for a pretty boring week and they’re not wrong. It’s not for everyone. But for the select group of students who are able to attend the festival, it’s an extremely affirming experience that will strengthen your passion for the medium. 

When I made it back to Reno where I was able to finally catch my breath and reflect on experience, I truly felt I grew as a person and a filmmaker due to being surrounded by other students and professionals who are just as passionate about cinema as I am. The Telluride Student Symposium truly was a life-changing experience and quite possibly the greatest week of my life ... so far. 

About the author

John Snelgrove is an undergraduate student studying in the Reynolds School of Journalism. He was recently named to the Dean’s List in spring 2023, and was the recipient of a Travel Award through Undergraduate Research.

John Snelgrove in sunglasses and a sweatshirt smiles outdoors.
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