BOULDER — In Boulder, Colorado, the secret to sustaining an international film festival is community engagement. Nestled in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, the city is not large — its population sits at around 100,000, according to the 2020 US Census. But sisters Robin and Kathy Beeck always thought it was an ideal setting for a film festival. 

“[Robin] kept saying, ‘someone will start that at some point.’ But no one did, so we decided to step up,” Kathy Beeck told Hyperallergic.

The sisters, who moved to Boulder in 1977, previously collaborated as filmmakers themselves and decided to found the Boulder International Film Festival (BIFF) in 2004. The first year, around 5,000 people showed up. Now, BIFF draws around 20,000 attendees. 

For its 2023 season, from March 2 to 5, BIFF showed a total of 67 films, including an impressive 13 films by Colorado filmmakers and four features from Sundance. 

Even as BIFF finds itself among giants of film festivals in the West — such as Sundance and Telluride — it is unique for its focus on nature and adventure movies in its programming, building a bridge between film and the Boulder community, which is known for its outdoors and fitness enthusiasts.

Around 300 people attended a screening of A River Out of Time (2022), a documentary about the current state of the Colorado River. The moderator put a series of questions to the audience, first asking how many considered themselves “river runners,” meaning people dedicated to river rafting and kayaking. About a third of the theater raised their hands. He then asked how many had rafted in the Grand Canyon, and the number of hands doubled. 

A River Out of Time was a highlight of BIFF’s “Adventure Film Pavilion,” which presents adventure shorts and features, while also hosting discussions with various nature adventurers and talkbacks with nonprofit groups to mobilize local action related to environmental issues. 

But to enjoy these films, Beeck said, “you don’t have to be an adventurer. Everyone can appreciate a good story.” 

Many of the films were screened at the Boulder Theater, a 1936 Art Deco cinema. (photo by Randy Malone Photography; courtesy BIFF)

BIFF not only focuses on Colorado films, filmmakers, and producers — it is supported by a crew of local donors, staff, and volunteers. 

Sarah Pritchard, who said she started volunteering to get into the shows for free, has now worked the festival for three years. On this year’s program, she most looked forward to seeing The Quiet Girl (2022), which took home BIFF’s Best Short Film Award and has been nominated for an Academy Award. But Pritchard says what she loves most about the event is the staff and volunteer camaraderie.

Constance Holden and her husband have been donating to BIFF every year since the festival began. “I’ve always been a film lover,” Holden said. “I prefer films that aren’t so ‘Hollywood-ish’: grittier.” 

This year, Holden co-facilitated the talkback after a screening of Jack Has a Plan (2022), a documentary about a terminally ill man preparing for a medically-assisted death. Holden worked in end-of-life care before retiring, and felt that the film was particularly well-suited for a Colorado audience. 

“Medical aid in dying is legal in Colorado, so a lot of people want to know more,” Holden said. “Things like a film festival keep you engaged.” 

Still from The Thief Collector (2022) directed by Allison Otto

Allison Otto is one of the Colorado filmmakers welcomed into the BIFF lineup this year. Otto, who grew up in Vail, directed The Thief Collector (2022), an inventive documentary about Rita and Jerry Alter, the couple supposedly behind the 1980s theft of Willem de Kooning’s painting “Woman-Ochre” (1955). 

Using Jerry Alter’s self-published short stories as source material, the film brings the couple’s potential crimes to life through scenes acted by Glenn Howerton (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Sarah Minnich (Better Call Saul). 

Many of the screenings and events took place at the Boulder Theater, a 1936 Art Deco cinema that has been designated a Colorado Historic Landmark, including a live-taped interview with actor F. Murray Abraham in which he was presented with BIFF’s Outstanding Performer of the Year Award.

The festival opened with Immediate Family (2022), a documentary by Denny Tedesco that tells the story of the legendary session musicians that backed innumerable ’70s stars, including James Taylor, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, and Jackson Browne. 

Other highlights of the weekend included Squaring the Circle (The Story of Hipgnosis) (2022), a charming documentary about Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey “Po” Powell, the creative duo behind many of the most famous album covers of all time. The Best Documentary Award went to It Ain’t Over (2022), which digs into the legacy of baseball legend Yogi Berra; The Lost King (2022), a new Sally Hawkins flick about the amateur historian that finds the remains of Richard III, was named Best Feature. 

Still from My Sister Liv (2022) directed by Alan Hicks (image courtesy BIFF)

The People’s Choice Award went to a story especially close to home for the Boulder crowds: My Sister Liv (2022), a film about a Boulder native who died by suicide while attending the University of Northern Colorado. The documentary focuses on the mental health crisis among adolescents and was screened at the festival with free admission for students ages 14–25. Prior to the showing, audience members were presented with free materials explaining how to talk about suicide.

Beeck hopes that BIFF will draw more attendees each year — including community members who have never attended a film festival; ultimately, she said, “it’s about coming together and building community.”

Sage Behr is a writer and actress originally from Iowa City. Behr graduated from Stanford University with a degree in Comparative Literature with a focus on Literary Translation. She has studied clown...