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Aspen Filmfest unspools at the Crystal Theatre with weighty lineup of documentaries
Filmfest opens Monday in Aspen, Friday in Carbondale
Picture of His Life. Courtesy Aspen Film



A modest, WHITE CLAPBOARD HOUSE sits quietly in Aspen’s West End in contrast to a handful of MEGA-MANSIONS sprouting up on the rest of the block.

The scene and setting is serene and peaceful as if everyone inside is peacefully asleep dreaming . . .

Appropriate late-’70s music like John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads” PLAYS OVER.



Where downstairs in the basement, it’s chaos. THREE WOMEN battle a large REEL-TO-REEL FILM PROJECTOR trying to stop it from racing backwards as FILM STOCK UNSPOOLS everywhere, and they try unsuccessfully to capture the acetate film jumping off the reel onto the table and onto the floor.

This is Aspen Film’s beginning. with its first Aspen Filmfest in 1979.

Our three heroines are Ellen Kohner (Hunt), Carol Rudolph and Gail Holstein. Lee Alexander would also eventually join them to make up a festival committee of four.

SMASH CUT to 40 years later . . .

From Sept. 23-29, Aspen Film will showcase top filmmaking from across the globe at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House and Metropolitan’s Isis Theatre. 

Picture of His Life. Courtesy Aspen Film
A weighty lineup of documentaries will screen at the Crystal Theatre in Carbondale from Sept. 27-29. In addition to screenings of highly anticipated fall previews and award-winning features and documentaries, panel discussions with special guests punctuate the weeklong festival.

“I had been asked to put together the film program for an arts festival in 1978, and it turned out terrific, so I decided to put together a whole festival of American independent films for the off-season in 1979,” explains Ellen Kohner Hunt, the founder of Aspen Filmfest, Aspen Shortsfest and the organization that became Aspen Film. 

“I enlisted Carol Rudolph and Gail Holstein, and we screened the films in my basement and put together a program that screened at Paepcke Auditorium. We had no idea if anyone would show up and that first night there was a line from Paepcke all the way down and around the block. We were astonished.”

Highlights of the first Filmfest include; “Northern Lights” by Jon Hanson and Rob Nilsson; the animated “The Little Prince” by Will Vinton; “Free Climb” narrated by Robert Redford and winners of the Western States film competition.

The iconic Filmfest logo was designed by Becky Young, and the just-as-memorable tagline “Independent By Nature” came from a dream by Joyce Semple.

“Our first late night movie was ‘Martin,’ directed by George Romero, who was a master of off-beat horror films,” says Gail Holstein. “A bunch of people ran out of the movie terrified and screaming, and we looked at one another in surprise, then started laughing because the sight was so funny.”

Aspen audiences have remained surprised and astonished by Aspen Film’s programs for the last 40 years, and the tradition of watching original, inspiring cinema in Aspen and Carbondale remains a highlight of each fall.

Following Ellen’s tradition

I was a member of Aspen Film’s screening committee for several years in the ’90s, and I became Aspen Film’s second board president following Ellen Hunt, so I am a bit biased about how special the organization, and Ellen, is to the Roaring Fork Valley.

Along with a handful of other locals, we screened film after film with Ellen at her house debating the merits of each and how they might play to a local audience. 

Disagreements happened regularly, and I particularly remember a battle over showing a quirky, foul-mouthed piece of animation by Trey Parker and Matt Stone called “Spirit of Christmas.” It was a video Christmas card they had been hired to create, and it featured a fight between Jesus and Santa Claus broken up by Brian Boitano. It was raw, it was irreverent, it became the origin of the animated powerhouse “South Park,” and it fit perfectly into one of Aspen Filmfest’s late night programs.

The programs of Aspen Film, like Filmfest, became known nationally and then internationally because of the high quality of the films screened at the festivals, and because the events, like Ellen herself, were unique, entertaining and did not take themselves too seriously. 

Ellen has the rare ability to make everything fun and entertaining, and, at the same time, attract a wide range of local artistic icons, like screenwriter Lorenzo Semple (“Three Days of the Condor,” “Never Say Never”) and film director Bob Rafelson (“Five Easy Pieces,” “The King of Marvin Gardens”), whom Aspen Film is giving a lifetime achievement award on Sept. 25.

Image courtesy Aspen Film Susan Wrubel, executive and artistic director
Susan Wrubel, Aspen Film’s executive and artistic director, has followed in Ellen's tradition and has steadied the helm of the organization over the last couple of years. 

“It is always hard to choose which films to show,” Wrubel notes. “This Filmfest we have an amazing program that begins on Monday (Sept. 23) in Aspen. The program is incredibly strong, and we have films screening that have won awards at many of the big festivals that have happened so far this year. And we are honoring Bob Rafelson on Wednesday (Sept. 25). Bob is a local hero, and it is only fitting that we are giving our first lifetime achievement award to Bob.”

“This is my third year as executive director, and my second year curating Filmfest,” explains Wrubel. “It’s been a wonderful roller coaster ride. We are on an upswing and there is lots of positive energy. My focus has been to really try and service our local community and bring films here that are going to provoke, but also foster dialogue.”

Since the fest Filmfest in 1979, documentaries have been an important part of Aspen Film's programming. 

“Documentaries speak to me in the same way that reading a biography speaks to me,” notes Lynda Palevsky, a former Aspen Film board president. 

“You’re learning something about a real event or a real person. It’s like a little piece of truth, and there seem to be more high-quality documentaries made these days. Susan was able to get many of the docs that have been playing the big festivals, and many of them won’t be out for months, so this is a great opportunity to see a sneak preview of these films.”

This year, all of the Filmfest films showing in Carbondale at the Crystal Theatre, 427 Main Street (Sept. 27-29) are documentaries (please see sidebar, page 8).

“To round out our 40th anniversary, we are ecstatic to be able to expand on ideas presented in three of our eye-opening documentaries with some of the filmmakers and a few special guests,” says Wrubel. “In general, we are looking to shine a light and help bring about positive change.”

This year’s festival continues the artistic quality and entertaining fun began by three local women, headed by Ellen Kohner Hunt, which began 40 years ago in a basement on Francis Street. Come join in, be enlightened and have a heck of a good time to boot!


For more information on the programs and special events for Aspen Filmfest's 40th anniversary, contact Aspen Film, 970-925-6882 or For tickets, contact the Wheeler Opera House Box Office in person, by phone 970-920-5770 or online ( For all Carbondale shows, contact or go to Bonfire Coffee, 433 Main Street, Carbondale, 970-510-5327.

Filmfest at the Crystal Theatre

Friday, Sept. 27

“Picture Of His Life”

7 p.m.

Israeli Amos Nachoum is one of the greatest underwater photographers of all time. He has swum with and filmed crocodiles, killer whales and great white sharks. But in this film he faces one of his biggest lifelong desires and challenges, being face-to-face with a polar bear. It is a film that is an amazing nature story that also resonates on many different levels. (1 hr, 12 min)

Saturday, Sept. 28

“Changing The Game”

5 p.m.

Michael Barnett's warm-hearted, courageous film captures young transgender athletes as they persevere in the face of unharnessed vitriol from parents and critics. They show their emotional maturity, which is far beyond anything their young ages should require, and inspire people of all ages to live proudly in their truths. Each of these young athletes are forces of nature that triumph over hurdle after hurdle as they live as their true selves and pursue what they love. (1 hr, 30 min)

“Cracked Up”

7 p.m.

In partnership with the Aspen Hope Center, Michelle Esrick's award-winning documentary examines the impact of childhood trauma and how it can affect someone for a lifetime. Seen through the eyes of comedian, actor and former "Saturday Night Live" performer Darrell Hammond, we view how Hammond suffers for years through debilitating flashbacks, self-injury and addictions because his mental illness was misdiagnosed. A panel discussion about the film and the issue of trauma featuring local mental health advocates will be held in Aspen on Friday at 10:30 a.m. (1 hr, 35 min)

Sunday, Sept. 29

“The Times of Bill Cunningham”

4 p.m.

Told in Bill Cunningham's own words, this plainspoken and cheerful film is narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker and features Cunningham's incredible photographs chosen from over three million previously unpublicized images and documents. Cunningham is a well-known street photographer and fashion historian who had a unique relationship with First Lady Jackie Kennedy and whose photos graced the pages of The New York Times for four decades. (1 hr, 14 min)

“Museum Town”

5:45 p.m.

This soulful, thought-provoking and unforgettable documentary tells the story of a unique museum and a unique town. It follows the remarkable story of how a small rural Massachusetts town went from economic collapse to becoming an art mecca. In 2017, MASS MoCA became the largest museum for contemporary art in the world, while three decades before its vast brick buildings were abandoned relics. It features celebrated artist Nick Cave with appearances by artists James Turrell and David Byrne and is narrated by Meryl Streep. (1 hr, 16 min)