My first evening at the Telluride Film Festival, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this weekend, the festival’s tireless and ebullient executive director, Julie Huntsinger, asked me whom I most wanted to meet. “Is Don DeLillo here?,” I asked. She led me over to a quiet corner where the author of White Noise was deep in conversation with two other people. The one with the beard filed away, and I realized that it was Ken Burns.

The woman in the circle stayed back, and as we fell into a long conversation about Burma, I was surprised by how much she knew about Aung San Suu Kyi. It was only after about 15 minutes that I registered that this friendly mom—I’d seen her with her kids strolling down the street—was Angelina Jolie. And that part of the special joy of this festival was that Angelina Jolie got to speak to one of America’s most reclusive novelists shortly before screening her latest, the 2017 film First They Killed My Father (some of which was shot in the Khmer language), in front of a large and discerning audience. And that I got to talk to both of them.

Willa Burns, Ken Burns, Sareum Srey Moch, Angelina Jolie, Mun Kimhak, and Loung Ung at the festival in 2017 .

It seemed a perfect introduction to what has become the highlight of every year for me, my chance to cram 12 months of cultural delight into a single, long weekend.

The Telluride Film Festival was co-founded in 1974 by Tom Luddy, a laid-back polymath who hung out with Susan Sontag in the 60s before going on to plot projects with Francis Ford Coppola, Philip Kaufman, and almost every other director who matters. Formerly the director of Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive, Luddy produced movies (Mishima, Barfly), played golf with Akira Kurosawa, and showed Andrei Tarkovsky the Rockies while taking auteurs to his festival, as he did every year, by car.

Luddy realized that, while spotlighting serious filmmaking, he could also create an intellectual salon for the ages. He invited such film-lovers as Salman Rushdie, Laurie Anderson, Stephen Sondheim, and Peter Sellars to be part of the mix. A genius at putting people together, he introduced Sellars to Jean-Luc Godard, and they ended up making a version of King Lear.

Tom Luddy (seen here in the 1970s) headed the Pacific Film Archive before co-founding the Telluride Film Festival, in 1974.

In this offbeat (though increasingly upmarket) little cowboy town 90 minutes from the nearest reliable airport, Luddy saw that he could bring people together every Labor Day around picnics and ice-cream socials as well as a dazzling slate of movies, just to sit in the high-mountain sunshine and discuss the latest from Errol Morris (whose documentary on John le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel, is premiering at this year’s festival) or Chloé Zhao. There is no red carpet or paparazzi, which is one reason Kristen Stewart will fly across the world to be there. Glamour and adventure, Luddy understood, are more meaningful when they’re behind the camera, not in front of it.

The year’s program is never announced until the festival begins, yet every pass this year was snapped up within 20 minutes, months in advance of opening night. It’s a treasure chest for the thousands who converge from all directions and a special gift for people like myself, who are invited along to spice up the conversations. (In 2019, I was allowed to share various little-known classics as guest director.)

Over a single weekend in 2021, I chatted at length with my favorite living filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi, who’s not often seen near my apartment in suburban Japan; dragged my poor wife along to a documentary about Tarkovsky, made by his son and sure never to show up at any cineplex; and took a cable car up the mountain at the center of town to enjoy a radiant view of the sun showing up above the mountains before heading back down to talk to Alexander Payne about his favorite Japanese actors.

Michael Ondaatje and Salman Rushdie at the festival in 2013.

Luddy passed away this past February, and the festival’s co-founder Bill Pence died just 10 weeks earlier. So Telluride is now entirely in the hands of Huntsinger, a producer who worked alongside Luddy for 15 years. Happily, she’s a marvel of warmth and enterprise, well aware that part of the appeal of the event is its freedom from formality and a democratic spirit that has no films in competition with one another.

The year’s program is never announced until the festival begins, yet every pass this year was snapped up within 20 minutes, months in advance of opening night.

Some of those who’ve been part of the community since the very beginning still show up year after year: Werner Herzog is often screening his latest inquiry into the uncanny in the Herzog Theatre, and Luddy’s old girlfriend Alice Waters is usually nearby to share her passions onstage and off. Round any corner and you might bump into Coppola or Scorsese, Walter Murch or Michael Ondaatje.

Even when you find yourself waiting in line for 90 minutes—as I did during my first two festivals, lacking a special pass—you can feel as if you’re in the thick of the cultural party of your dreams. The regular folks you meet are far from regular. They’ve flown in from Chicago and Mill Valley because they like the casual elegance of the scene and can’t wait to see the latest Koreeda, or that excavated oldie from Lubitsch. A movable feast of cinéastes forms around all the nine or so theaters, and the conversations in the queues become as much an attraction and stimulation as some of the movies.

The regular folks you meet at Telluride are far from regular.

Telluride has showcased one best-picture winner after another (six months ahead of the Oscars), while also nurturing such rising stars as Barry Jenkins and last year’s guest directors, the Russian Wunderkinder Kantemir Balagov and Kira Kovalenko. Since it unfolds the same weekend as the Venice Film Festival, many make the long flight over from Italy mid-weekend and enjoy a world premiere and a U.S. premiere almost simultaneously.

This year, as ever, great directors (such as Wim Wenders) are fêted on top of the mountain, in the shadow of properties owned by Tom Cruise and Oprah Winfrey. Almost century-old restored films and forgotten classics are showing in small venues along the almost car-less main street, among garden cafés whose fluttering prayer-flags make me imagine I’m back in Lhasa. A feature from Bhutan and a film about Flannery O’Connor directed by Ethan Hawke will be screened at night, free of charge, in the town’s small central park. And this year’s best actor at Cannes, Koji Yakusho, will dine in the same small room as Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth.

Jane Campion, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Telluride’s executive director, Julie Huntsinger, at the festival in 2021.

To create a gathering so human yet so starry, so relaxed while also being such a celebration of real artistry, is a rare and inspiring feat. Now that Luddy has fashioned the template, Huntsinger seems perfectly placed to bring it to new generations by ensuring that it never becomes a thing of flashbulbs and mere small talk.

My selfish hope is that I’ll be coming back 10 years from now, to find Sellars still inspiring the students who come on scholarships with his uncommon eloquence and energy, and then, on a shuttle bus back to Montrose Airport, telling me about a performance of Noh drama he saw at midnight on a winter evening in Nara Park, opening a door to the city where I live that might otherwise have been closed forever.

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Pico Iyer is a Columnist for Air Mail and the author, most recently, of The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise