George Clooney, left, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller in "The Descendants." (Fox Searchlight Pictures )
Reporting from Telluride, Colo. — — There are hardly more striking film festival settings than this former mining town: an 8,750-foot-elevation box canyon flanked on the sides by sheer red-rock cliffs and capped at its end by a misty waterfall. So it seems only fitting that land itself — and in particular its custodianship — played such a prominent part in the just-concluded Telluride Film Festival.
Though the works in the 38th annual movie gathering covered an assortment of topics and themes, some of the Labor Day weekend festival's most memorable new films cast the land in a starring role, using terra firma as a narrative linchpin. Not surprisingly, some of those earth-first story lines were found in documentaries, but at least two fictional features — "The Descendants" and "The Forgiveness of Blood" —use the land for critical dramatic effect.
Alexander Payne's "The Descendants," adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings' novel of the same name, stars George Clooney as Matt King, a real estate lawyer and the sole trustee of 25,000 acres of inherited, virgin Hawaiian property poised to be sold to resort developers. The deal, which will bring King and his greedy relatives a windfall, isn't his primary concern, though. King's wife is in an irreversible coma following a boating accident, and the father of two girls abruptly must learn not only how to be a single dad but also, more fundamentally, an engaged human being.
At one point in the story, King remarks that families are like archipelagoes, "All part of a whole, but separate and alone — and drifting slowly apart." While the land is a metaphor for how his life is disjointed, King's decision about the property is a more tangible expression of how he can reclaim ownership over what he previously took for granted. "We didn't do anything to own this land," King tells his relatives at one point. "It was entrusted to us."
Payne said that King feels unable to say goodbye to both his wife and his property at the same time. "He's just midwifed one death, and he doesn't want to midwife another," said the director, whose last film was 2004's "Sideways." "He's always tried to be a nice guy and a conformist — 'I want to be a good provider' — and it's all kind of backfired." If King decides to ensure that the property isn't turned into the next Pebble Beach, he can also reverse the larger family's unflattering reputation as non-native interlopers — "haole," in the Hawaiian language.
As a filmmaker, Payne refused to shoot "The Descendants," opening Nov. 23, through a mainland, touristy lens. Hawaii, and especially Honolulu, in the film is populated with average-looking people — some use wheelchairs, some are homeless, some are old. "I've never seen that in a movie," Payne said. "And it's interesting to me — it's part of why I wanted to make the movie."
In "The Forgiveness of Blood," director Joshua Marston (2004's "Maria Full of Grace") travels to far more distant shores: a small Albanian town, and the land dispute that triggers a murder and a seemingly unsolvable blood feud between rival clans.
The film, whose release date has not been announced, is ultimately about how a family — especially a teenage boy — is transformed by the feud, and how ancient Albanian customs govern the resolution of disputes. But the entire "Forgiveness of Blood" tale is propelled by property — whose is it to begin with, and what are the obligations of ownership?
Under post-World War II communist rule, Albanian land was nationalized. Only after the country's 1990 regime collapse did the soil revert back to farmers, but the boundaries were not always clear. "Do you give it back to the family that owned it 45 years ago and was relocated, or to the family that is living on it?" Marston said. With land holding the key to economic survival for subsistence and small-scale production, its power grows manifold.
"To infringe on someone's land is to infringe on their personal being," Marston said. Consequently, the precipitating act in the film — a bread vendor's taking a shortcut through another clan's farm — is hardly a minor trespass and the penalty for it is almost beyond an American audience's comprehension.
Mohamed Nasheed, the leader of the Maldives and the focus of the documentary "The Island President," has put the ultimate price tag on his nation's land: his country's very existence. Lying less than five feet above sea level — "We don't even have one hill," Nasheed says in the film — the collection of 1,200 islands in the Indian Ocean with some 400,000 residents has more than a passing interest in climate change. If the Earth's temperature continues to warm, the nation could be totally underwater in several decades.