Tomorrow’s hits, today

Boulder International Film Festival returns for a 20th go-round

Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF) returns for its 20th year, Feb. 29 through March 2. Courtesy: BIFF

When the lights dim and a hush falls over the audience at the Cinemark Century Boulder on Feb. 29, the Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF) will open for the 20th time. That’s nothing to shake a stick at, especially considering the drubbing many festivals took these past four years. Then again, Boulder knows how to show up for an event.

BIFF’s secret sauce: founders and sisters Kathy and Robin Beeck. Few know their audience as well as the Beecks do — to the point that I’ve made a game of looking at programs from Telluride, Toronto or Sundance and predicting which movies will find their way to BIFF. Granted, part of this is thanks to insider information as I sometimes run into Kathy at festivals, and part of it dates back to my stint on BIFF’s program committee, where I learned firsthand from Robin which movies do and don’t play for a Boulder audience.

Still, it’s a pleasant surprise to see BIFF marking its gemstone anniversary with an outstanding lineup of recent award winners and favorites from the festival’s past. Ieblin (March 1 and 2) and Porcelain War (March 2), written and produced by Boulder’s own Paula DuPré Pesmen — both of which nabbed awards at Sundance — will be among this year’s new offerings. And if you missed the delightful Irish animation Song of the Sea (March 2) when it played in 2015, then here’s your chance to catch up with that memorable fairytale on the big screen.

But what films in the BIFF 2024 lineup will become future favorites? Could it be Maggie Contreras’ Maestra (March 2 and 3) which tracks the dearth of female conductors in the classical music world and culminates in Paris’ La Maestra competition? Or will it be Tehachapi (March 2 and 3) from muralist JR, who uses portraiture and personal stories to mend broken relationships at a maximum-security prison? 

You may know JR’s work from the spectacular documentary Faces Places (BIFF 2018), where he teamed with filmmaker Agnès Varda for one of the best works of her career. She’s back too, this time in spirit with Via Varda (March 2 and 3), documentarian Pierre-Henri Gibert’s moving look at the iconic filmmaker who passed away in 2019.

Ian Cheney’s ‘The Arc of Oblivion’ screens March 1 and 2 at Century Boulder as part of the 20th Boulder International Film Festival. Courtesy: Sandbox Films

If those picks seem obvious, dig deeper into the program and find this gem from Ian Cheney: The Arc of Oblivion (March 1 and 2). Cheney is an accidental archivist. He neither hoards nor obsessively collects, but saves more than the average person might. Since Cheney is a multifaceted filmmaker, this probably felt at first like a natural extension of his work. Ditto when he became a parent: He wanted to prevent the past — specifically the past of his children — from slipping away. Now Cheney is building a small wooden ark on his parents’ property in Maine with the help of a neighbor. To store and save what, exactly? Cheney isn’t totally sure about that part. He’s not even sure if anything is worth saving in the first place.

Arc of Oblivion combines investigative journalism, talking head experts, stop-motion animation and revealing self-analysis. It’s as serious as it is playful and ends on a poetic note. In one interview, German director Werner Herzog — explaining in a way only Herzog could — says he saves nothing extra from his movies, only the completed film itself. In another, Cheney talks with Yasmin Glinton Poitier, who lost her own archive of family photos when Hurricane Dorian smashed into the Bahamas in 2019.

Herzog’s sentiment forms the humor of Arc, but Poitier’s loss is emblematic of the movie’s heart. Most of the subjects Cheney speaks with are trying to save some aspect of history, even in the face of obliteration. Nature, we learn from paleontologist Kirk Johnson, functions similarly. Part of the Earth’s crust is constantly sinking, layering mud on top of one another and preserving fossils for future discovery. While that happens, another part of the crust is forever pushing skyward as mountains, which expose the preserved history that is either discovered by us or withered away by the elements. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Some persons, moments, ideas, works will be with us forever. Others will be gone before anyone even forgets to remember them.

Cheney’s doc is a delight — one that won’t surprise me in the least when it shows up on the schedule in 20 years for BIFF’s 40th anniversary. Not every movie will connect with a Boulder audience, but this one will. 

ON SCREEN: 20th Boulder International Film Festival. Feb. 29-March 2, multiple venues. Full schedule and pricing at