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Prudence Mabhena performs after a screening of Music by Prudence. Photo by Gus Gusciora.

It’s hard to forget Prudence Mabhena’s emotion-inducing performance after packed screenings of Roger Williams’ film about her life, Music By Prudence, at last year’s festival. Yesterday we received an update on Prudence, from Dr. Rick Hodes:

Prudence was discharged from hospital today. She had spine surgery to straighten her spine, and then surgery on both hips to give her more mobility. It is my understanding that her legs are now fixed at a 90 degree angle outwards so she’ll be able to sit up better.

I just spoke with her, she’s in some pain still, but feeling a bit better every day, and is looking forward to being out of hospital for some time now. Her breathing is better and easier than before, which is great.

She sends her best wishes to all.

Dr. Hodes and his work was featured in the documentary film Making the Crooked Straight. To learn more about the film and how you can help others like Prudence, visit the Making the Crooked Straight website.


Prudence Mabhena’s life has been very eventful lately, and we wanted to give you an update on all the big happenings.

Prudence performing in Telluride for Mountainfilm 2010

At Mountainfilm 2010 Prudence performed after packed screenings of Roger Williams’ film about her life, Music By Prudence.

In November, we received a secret email from Dr. Rick Hodes which we can share with you now. Rick won the Moving Mountains Prize in 2009 for the film Making the Crooked Straight about his work in Ethiopia helping children with severe spinal deformities.

Prudence with festival director David Holbrooke

Here’s the note from Rick to Mountainfilm dated November 5, 2010:


“I want to let you in on a working plan/secret, since you are somehow a key part of the picture, whether you know it or not.

“First Sue Cohn Rockefeller made Making the Crooked Straight about my work in Ethiopia which was shown at Mountainfilm-2009 and given the
Moving Mountains Prize. That money went to Mieraf.

“While Sue’s film was entered into the Oscar route, it did not make it very far. On the other hand, Music by Prudence actually made it to the

“Second, I returned to Mountainfilm-2010 to be a judge for the prize and to bring Mieraf to thank everyone for helping save her life. Mountainfilm was showing Music by Prudence, and I met Prudence. Being a doctor first, I saw that she had a bad back, and started working to get her spine surgery. Without surgery, her spine would collapse and she would be unable to breathe. After our morning conference closed, I had my son guard the door, and I examined Prudence and took the appropriate photos.

Dr. Rick Hodes at the Palm Theater

“I managed to get a promise of surgery in Ghana by Dr. Boachie. This was tentatively arranged for November. However, due to lack of working operating rooms at the time, that was put on hold.

“Enter Noel Cunningham, owner of Strings Restaurant in Denver. Super place. Noel somehow decided he likes my work and wants to have a
1000-person dinner/fundraiser for me on 13 January. You can read about this:

“Now for some background, and the confidential info:

“Earlier this year, I had Akewak,  a 12 year old boy come to me with a bad back. On further exam, I found that he had undergone disastrous
heart surgery in Ethiopia 7 years ago, and nobody – neither the surgeon nor the cardiologist – had ever realized that they cut the wrong blood vessel. Akewak would die by the time he was 20 without very complex  corrective surgery.

“Now, I had met several prominent Denver docs via Noel Cunningham. I called on them, and Akewak was operated on successfully (and for free!) in Denver in June, then had spine surgery a few months later. He’s now back in Ethiopia, and doing great.

“Once Prudence’s surgery was put on hold in Ghana, I called my contacts in Denver. They worked on the possibility of Prudence having corrective spine surgery in Denver.

“At Noel’s Dinner of Unconditional Love, the secret guest will be Prudence. After playing some of her music, at some point the lights will go down, and after 30 seconds of complete blackness, Amazing Grace will be played. Then the lights will come on, and it will be Prudence onstage sing. Later on, they’ll make the announcement that Prudence will have spine surgery at Children’s Hospital in Denver.

Prudence onstage in Denver

“First of all, you should know about this. Mountainfilm is what introduced us all. Second, we’d like you to come to the dinner if you are able to. Third, if you know any other Friends of Mountainfilm who might be interested, please invite them.

“Just think – if Sue had won the Oscar, then this would never be taking place.

“Many thanks, Rick”


A standing ovation for Prudence Mabhena

Recently, we received an update from Rick about the event which did indeed take place on January 13:


“Dinner went fantastically. They got about 940 people, a great variety of people, including clergy from Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish faiths. I was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Humanitarian Medicine by Regis University’s president, Father Mike Sheeran.

“At the end of my talk about my life, my family, and my patients (after all, they’re all intertwined), I said “Now I want to tell you about Prudence.” I told her story, then showed a film clip of the film. At the end of the clip, all the lights went completely black for about 15 seconds. Then Prudence’s voice came out, blasting out Amazing Grace. Then a single spotlight shined on the stage, and she was there in a sequined dress, in her motorized wheelchair. People were amazed, they cried, they loved it. As you say, it was great theatre. She gave a brief speech.”


And now for the biggest news: Just two days ago, Prudence had major spine surgery at The Children’s Hospital in Denver, performed by Dr. Mark Erickson. They inserted rods and were able to obtain a significant corrected in her spine. Rick reports that she was sedated for about a day and is now out of the ICU and slowly starting her long recovery.

Inaugural Mountainfilm Commitment Program Provides $25,000

Telluride, Colorado (November 2, 2010) – Five grantees, from a field of 75 filmmakers, photographers and adventurers, will each receive $5,000 and an Apple laptop computer to help with new projects that key into Mountainfilm’s mission of educating and inspiring audiences about issues that matter. The grants will be the first made under the new Mountainfilm Commitment initiative designed to help ensure that important stories are told – and heard.

“The projects we’re supporting with grants cover very diverse ground but we think each are really worthy, compelling and vital,” said Mountainfilm Executive Director Peter Kenworthy. “We were at real pains to narrow the field because we were presented with such outstanding applications. We think our top five choices reflect the kind of breadth, depth and excellence that Mountainfilm strives for in its programming. We couldn’t be more pleased or excited to be partnering with them.”

Kenworthy said the granting initiative was inspired by Mountainfilm Festival Director David Holbrooke’s desire to both give back to the community of filmmakers, artists, and explorers that so generously supports Mountainfilm and to help broaden the impact of new critical stories. “David cooked up the idea and, with the help of staff and our board of directors, we were able to give it structure and make it a reality,” he said. “It’s a really exciting initiative for an organization like ours and we feel very pleased and privileged to have successfully launched it and look forward to continuing it.”

The five winning grantees, and their projects, are:

A child searching for techno ruble from the film Terra Blight

Isaac Brown, director/producer, Terra Blight, a documentary about America’s consumption of computers and the hazardous waste we create in pursuit of the latest technology. The film examines the unseen worlds of one of the most ubiquitous toxic wastes on our planet. Despite the fact that the United States produces the most e-waste of any nation, it currently is the only industrialized country that does not regulate the exportation of that waste. Terra Blight will ensure you never look at your old computer the same way again. Brown previously made Gimme Green, which played at Mountainfilm 2007.

Ruins in the town of Paradox, CO, which is facing a new uranium mine

Richard Linnett, director/producer, Paradox Valley U.S.A., a documentary about how a potential global nuclear renaissance could start in Paradox, Colorado – not far from Telluride – because of a proposed new uranium mill that would be the first in this country since the Cold War. The mill’s outspoken  supporters are people from nearby uranium mining towns who need jobs. Opposition comes from a loose alliance of activists who argue that toxic waste, dust and radioactivity will foul the food chain and water supply, creating personal health hazards while destroying property values. Meanwhile, there has been a worldwide resurgence of support for nuclear power and leading environmentalists are reversing their long held anti-nuclear positions – a core paradox facing opponents of the mill, and a key conflict driving the story. Linnett has been filming in and around Telluride for more than a year.

Mbambu learning to be a mountain guide in the film Mbambu and the Mountains of the Moon

Lucian and Natasa Muntean, directors/producers, Mbambu and the Mountains of the Moon, a documentary about a sixteen-year old girl, Mbambu, from a small village at the foot of the Rwenzori Mountains in Uganda, who wants to be the first in her family to complete secondary school. Because her family is poor, Mbambu earns her high school tuition by guiding foreign trekkers. Her mentor in this work is an ex-poacher who inspires Mbambu to educate Ugandans about the dangers and drawbacks of poaching. Mbambu, in turn, enlists her amateur drama group to take on the cause. Their previous film, Journey of the Red Fridge played at Mountainfilm 2009.

Hayley Shepherd on her solo journey, documented in the upcoming film Soul of the Sea

Katie Mustard, director/producer, Soul of the Sea, a documentary that follows the unrelenting desire of one woman – Hayley Shephard – to solo kayak the most challenging waters on the planet for the sake of saving an animal on the brink of extinction – the world’s largest flying bird, the Albatross. Undeterred by hurricane-force winds and a wildly treacherous sea, wilderness guide and expedition leader Shephard set out in January 2010, set out to make the first ever solo kayak around South Georgia Island. However like Shephard’s hero, Sir Ernest Shackleton – the Antarctic explorer who turned disaster into the most famous lesson in survival, her expedition did not go as planned.

The Sacred Heaadwaters photographed by Paul Colangelo

Paul Colangelo, photographer, Sacred Headwaters, Sacred Journey, a photographic exposition of the shared birthplace of three of British Columbia’s great salmon-bearing rivers, the Stikine, Skeena and Nass, and one of the largest predator-prey ecosystems in North America, now threatened by resource development. Known as the “Serengeti of the North”, it supports large populations of grizzlies, wolves, woodland caribou, moose, mountain goats and stone sheep. This land has come under threat of numerous resource developments including a proposed coalbed methane development that would fracture nearly a million acres of wildlife habitat with wells, pipelines and roads, and a proposed open-pit gold and copper mine that would destroy the most important habitat for stone sheep in the world. There will be a gallery exhibit at Mountainfilm 2011 and longtime friend of the festival Wade
Davis, who is involved in this project will speak about it at the Awareness into Action Symposium.

Holbrooke said he was thrilled that so many worthwhile applications were submitted and gratified that, within just a year, the new program had gone from conception to funding. The hardest part by far, he said, was choosing the grantees. “It was ridiculously difficult – much harder than selecting films for the festival,” he said. “Most of the projects submitted were worth funding.” He also lamented that no grants were being made in the first year to local
Telluride-area applicants and said he looks forward to addressing that next year. “There were a couple of local projects at the conceptual stage that have enormous potential,” he said. “We hope to see those back next year for latter-stage production or post-production funding. There are so many talented local filmmakers and photographers, artists and adventurers and this program was created – partly – with them in mind and I very much hope that next year, we are able to support a project that is homegrown in Telluride.”

While we were thrilled at the turnout of Mountainfilm in New York–two of the shows sold out (I Am and Bag It)–we were almost even more thrilled to hear about some of the direct action that happened as a result of our event. MF in NYC wasn’t just about entertainment and inspiration, and the following stories are just a few of the ones we heard percolating around us during the weekend.

Leisure time during Mountainfilm in New York


After the Extinction Panel, Greg Carr, who is helping to restore a wildlife refuge in Mozambique called Gorangosa, asked Laurie Marker, Founder and Director of the Cheetah Conservation Fund, if it would be possible to bring cheetahs back to Mozambique. They are now working together to make it happen.

Tim DeChristopher, whose act of civil disobedience as “Bidder 70” has him facing 10 years jail time for taking a stand against a fraudulent oil and gas auction, received several thousands in donations for the organization Peaceful Upraising and climate change protesters who face arrest and jail time.

Mountainfilm and Bag It crews with Tim DeChristopher

The daughter of Gordon Dancy, inventor of the single-use plastic bag, was in the audience for the screening of Bag It. Kristen Brown stood up in the Q&A of the film to say that she has dedicated her life to getting rid of the ubiquitous, and polluting, bags that were once thought to be the height of convenience. She set up her My Eco Bag System in the lobby, where the nearby table of Bag It DVDs completely sold out.

On a more personal note, we loved seeing all the Telluride faces in the audience, both present and past locals. There are many connections between our two communities, and we’re looking forward to keeping the momentum going with an even bigger show in 2011. Big thanks goes out to Ronnie Planalp, who made the connection between Mountainfilm and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the Film Society staff, especially Marian Masone and Isa Cucinotta.

Keep an eye out for future developments–like a tour show and educational cruise in Patagonia–that were born in NYC.

Listen to Rick Hodes–winner of the Moving Mountains Prize at Mountainfilm in 2009–on NPR.

Photo by Jennifer Koskinen

Rick Hodes with Mieraf at Mountainfilm 2010

This series of posts documents two ordinary folks attempting to get out there and do good. Over the next few months, we’ll follow them through the setbacks and triumphs of their endeavor to take the inspiration of Mountainfilm and turn it into something tangible. (To catch up. start here.)

After having little luck thus far, Jenny and I began a fierce email and Skype campaign. We wrote countless cover letters and agonized over our resumes. We set up the webcam at all hours to Skype with members of organizations in disparate and exotic time zones.

The summer months flew by, each one threatening to condemn us to another winter of domestic drudge (I exaggerate…we do live in Telluride, after all).

Then, all at once, our efforts began to bear fruit. Having been vetted and nominally approved of by our domestic contacts, we were put in touch with people on the ground. Being introduced to these folks was the tipping point: these were the people who had a specific vision for how we could help.

All of a sudden we had several opportunities. (I credit the majority of this to Jenny. She was tireless in pursuing leads and took setbacks in stride. I mostly pouted.) This leads us to where we are today. We have been invited to work with an organization (well known to Mountainfilm devotees) called “Free the Slaves” and, through them, the Social Support Foundation in Ghana. Both organizations are dedicated to fighting modern-day slavery.

Now that what we’ll be doing has finally been established, we have to take care of all the chores necessary to actually get us to Ghana: obtain visas; buy plane tickets; get the required and suggested vaccinations; rent our apartment (or store all our furniture); inform the bank of our travels; suspend our cell phones; change health insurance; etc. etc. etc.

Checking off all these to-do items will, hopefully, be less arduous than it was connecting with an organization – we’ll know better next Thursday!

Photo by Jennifer Koskinen

Last year Dr. Rick Hodes, who works with Ethiopian children who suffer from tuberculosis of the spine and whose story is told in Making the Crooked Straight, won the Moving Mountains Prize. His medical program was awarded $5,000, and with it he was able to help a young patient named Meiraf. Meiraf attended this year’s festival, and read a moving letter to a full crowd at the Palm Theatre. It’s another example of what we call the Domino Effect of Mountainfilm; using inspiration to truly make positive change.

For those of you that missed it, here is Meiraf’s entire letter:

Last November, I left Ethiopia for the first time in my life. With no mother or father beside me, I was taken to Ghana for spinal surgery. As my body lay flat on the surgeon’s table, I remember seeing giant machines all around me. I had never seen such machines, and started feeling scared. But the medical team reminded me, that I was in good hands, and of how this surgery was going to be my second chance at life. Confident, I counted backwards from ten, and then found myself feeling sleepy, because I couldn’t hear the clash of instruments, that would soon be cutting through my back.

My name is Meiraf Atanafu. I grew up with a deep love for education, but school was not my favorite place. You see, I did not look like the other kids in my school, and they reminded me of this, every single day.

Read the rest of this entry »

Here’s another update on Mieraf, the 11 year old Ethiopian girl that Rick Hodes (the star of Making the Crooked Straight, MF09) treated. She was able to get the surgery, thanks to the prize money (supplemented by audience members) from our Moving Mountains Award.

From Rick Hodes:

Hi David,

Mieraf has gained at least 6 inches, and is a bit frail, but easily
walking and doing well. I anticipate that with a return to her family,
cooler temperatures and more familiar food, she will do really well. I
keep them out of school for several months after surgery, so she will
have time to read on her own and walk longer distances every week.

I will see her tomorrow for a more thorough exam, and post-op photos
and xrays, so that I can have a post-surgery baseline.

Many thanks!

Best wishes for a great year,


A picture of Mieraf from the back, pre-surgery.

A picture of Mieraf from the back, pre-surgery.

A group shot of fellow spine surgery patients. She is fourth from the left with the glasses. You can see from the reverse picture how dramatically different her spine is.DSC_0509

A group shot of fellow spine surgery patients. She is fourth from the left with the glasses. You can see from the reverse picture (below) how dramatically different her spine is.

August 26, 2008

The 2008 festival was particular Domino-liscious. This story is the first of several examples of Mountainfilm’s direct positive impact on the world, stemming from the 2008 festival, that I will be posting on the blog in the coming weeks. For more Mountainfilm Domino Effect stories click on the Domino Effect category to the right.

THE MOMENT: Sylvia Johnson is a young filmmaker who was granted a fellowship in Brazil to chronicle the lives of poor kids who lived in slums in Brazil. Mountainfilm is one of the first film festivals to accept her short film, Alagados, which profiles Renato, an ex-criminal who chooses to defy the stereotype and engage in the active development of his own identity. A photography series called The Alagados Project, which puts cameras into the hands of some of Brazil’s most underprivileged and challenged young people, is part of the Gallery Walk.


Renato, criminal turned musician. Featured in the MF 2008 film Alagados

THE RESULT: Sylvia’s film and the work of the Alagados Project inspire a MF sponsor to commit $60,000 to the effort, giving the non-profit an enormous financial boost. The Alagados donation, says Johnson, will “put three kids through college and give them a real shot to work their way out of poverty.”

img_0789.jpgGuest blogger Stephanie Graham

February 1, 2008

Can you remember the last time your DNA experienced a good ole’ fashioned “download”? The sort where it’s as if the “Chef of the Universe” has cooked up some kind of delicious quantum soup, feeding it right into your bones. Where every cell stands at attention calling out “Incoming!” and with that experience your life is forever changed and you just know you are in for a powerful ride ahead. Two such “downloads” have come my way, and one of them happened during the Telluride Mountainfilm festival in 2007! But first the catalyst….

I knew before I flew to Nepal for the first time in October 2006 with Backwoods Adventures to trek to the base camp of Mt. Everest that it would change my life. I just wasn’t sure what form it would take. During the entire trek I felt like I was hovering 5 feet off the ground and long before it was all over I was already visualizing my return and wondering how I could be of support to the amazing people of Nepal. Download #1 successful, off and running!


After returning home I was flipping through the latest National Geographic Adventure magazine and my eye caught the ad for Mountainfilm in Telluride. I immediately called and registered to attend! I had previously lived in Telluride, but never attended the festival, so here was my chance! I knew it would be a great venue to connect with like minded people and those who would know the best way to be of use in Nepal!

As I sat in the audience watching one incredible film after another and hearing the likes of Wade Davis, Paul Hawken and Brot Coburn speak….and so many others over the weekend, I felt as if my DNA had lifted out of my body, acting like a spiraling magnet capturing all the magical gems of the event, and coming alive like a newly decorated Christmas tree plugged in for the first time…in a long time. Download #2 successful, off and galloping at full speed!

As a result of those two experiences, it gave me the courage to ACT on my desire to be of help! Overcoming my usual shyness I introduced myself to Brot Coburn, told him what I was looking for and he said “you should call Liesl” and I did!

Eight months later I am once again in Nepal (right now as you read this!) and this time as a volunteer for the Magic Yeti Children’s Library Project. This amazing endeavor has been launched by 14 year old Phoebe Coburn (Brot Coburn’s daughter), award winning filmmaker Liesl Clark and her husband Everest climber Pete Athans early last year.


With no previous fundraising experience but with a great deal of enthusiasm and “yes I can” attitude I was able to raise $19,367.00 (THREE libraries worth!) in three short months to help contruct and stock libraries for the Magic Yeti Project! And I intend to keep going until I raise my total goal amount of $50,000.00.

But it doesn’t stop there. In late March 2008 I will launch my newly redesigned website to inspire more people to TAKE ACTION and get involved in something that ignites their passion, their imagination and natural strengths. Each month we will have a featured guest discussing topics such as teamwork, goal setting, philanthropy and outdoor adventure and the value we gain from connecting with the power of “travel”…both in body and mind. From leaders in mountaineering to leaders in psychology, it will be a powerful source for all.

In the meantime you can guarantee that I will be attending the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival in 2008 for more “downloads”! Just look for the girl from Oklahoma wearing a happy smile, running from film to film in between stops at the Steaming Bean!

And if you haven’t yet attended the Telluride Mountainfilm Festival…buy your ticket and start packing!


Stephanie S. Graham

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