Review: BANFF Mountain Film Festival: The Final Round-Up

As someone not particularly engaged with the sporting world (and by that I mean I can barely make the walk to the bus stop without cramping up and taking a rest break); the BANFF Mountain Film Festival seemed like the perfect way to get an insight into the world of extreme sport, without having to do much moving. The annual event is held in Banff, Canada; running for a week and drawing audiences from all over the world to enjoy films that focus on the beauty of nature, and to watch brave individuals defeat it by board, bike, and everything in between. After the 7 day run, two hours worth of footage from the various films are selected to create a specially curated program – and this travels on the ‘World Tour.’

Picking up the festival in the Hayden Orpheum, Sydney Australia, was a wonderful combination of luxurious picture-palace design clashing with the raw and natural images on screen – a beautiful venue to hold the lively event. Reclining back in the chair, the spokeswoman for the evening appeared to assure the audience that ‘getting rowdy’ was more than welcome, and to whoop, cheer and holler to our heart’s content in the spirit of the festival. With such an engaging introduction and a community vibe settled into the room, the pure fun of the films permeated through the audience from the outset, making for a markedly different evening out at the movies.

The films screened in Sydney were a mix of exhilarating highs and heart-wrenching lows; expertly weaving intensity and humour together in new and innovative ways. 9 films from all over the world made up the schedule, which are reviewed separately below.

55 Hours in Mexico (Joey Schusler, Karl Thompson, Thomas Woodson: 2015)
★★★★☆

Following four friends who take off to Mexico intending to climb the third highest peak in North America; this film is all about adrenaline on a time-limit. Flying to Velacruz, climbing the mountain, skiing back down and being back in the office for Monday morning makes for the most jam-packed weekend imaginable – and we are taken along for the ride. Squashing the 55 hour trip into a 9 minute short film made every minute important. Shot in a documentary style, the intensity of the adventure comes through with every breath of the protagonists; with the lovable Karl Thompson providing a more realistic reaction to the heady ride up and back down the mountain. It’s great as it feels real – not everything goes to plan and the guys find themselves in some real hardships; but their thirst for adventure is the one sure thing keeping them all going. Friendly and fun, this was a great opener to the rest of the line-up.

unReal (Teton Gravity Research: 2015)
★★★☆☆

It should be noted that this was a shortened version of the original film. unReal was presented in three distinct story lines taken from the total narrative; the first following the ‘perfect trail being ridden perfectly.’  As seamless as can be imagined, a biker is depicted twisting and turning his way down a verdant hillside – mastering giant leaps and intricate tricks with effortless capability. The camera swoops and swoons with his flawless movements, working in tandem with the backing track – which ticks over an acoustic country song that sends waves of relaxed, easy vibes that disguise the difficulty of the task at hand.

Just as attention begins to wane at seeing such uninterrupted fluidity however, the next scenario is brought into play – a day where instead of snow, dirt falls from the sky. Four enthusiastic bikers take to the forest to revel like excited school children in the brown flakes; catching them on their tongues and making dirt angels in between tearing up the track; sending the fresh dirt-fall flying in artful slow-mo arcs. An interesting idea and one clearly more exciting to cyclists than most – a great deal of time is spent watching dirt cascade in artful motions across the screen as the bikes collide with earth. We then finally move on to a final scenario – one where everyone has escaped the tedium of their everyday lives and takes to the hills to ride their bikes into the distance, a never-ending stream of bike enthusiasts rolling by in a sea of wheels and helmets. The theme that links the three is clued in the title; as Teton have brought to life a film that meshes illusion with reality. It asks the ‘what if’ question in fun, playful ways – bending what we are seeing around what is actually happening in the real world so we aren’t sure of either.

Teton have clearly done their film-school with this piece, as the camera work and cinematography is masterful to behold. The most menial moments are made interesting and engaging by the focus on movement; manipulating the playing speed so we can see every grain of dirt as it flies past us in slow motion. However, whilst the film should be praised for its intricacy and skillful creation; the lack of real story line means that simply watching the athletes ride bikes for 12 minutes can become arduous quickly – which is especially disappointing as this is the shortened version. The idea behind the piece is fantastic, but is only employed in small voice-over bursts; the content of each scenario not offering any movement of the narrative in a real tangible direction. Teton toys with exciting moments and extraordinary events – but only briefly before giving in to the spectacle of sport. Personally, I’d have liked to have seen the two interwoven a little more so that the superb ideas behind each scene could continue and grow with the athletes as they showed their skill sets – but it’s still definitely worth a watch.

Paradise Waits (Teton Gravity Research: 2015)
★★☆☆☆

Another Teton film employing marvellous control of the camera, this film covers two skiers and their winter-sports style down some impressive mountains. Tim Durtschi traverses the wild nature of the slope, taking unpredictable turns and some breath-taking jumps, and Angel Collison shows us some jaw-dropping helicopter drops down ridiculous slopes; leaving avalanches in her wake. Again, Teton produces some absolutely beautiful cinematography – smooth, intricate and mesmerising as the athletes do their thing. This is another case of spectacle, the film zeroing in on ‘what it is like to ski at Jackson Hole rather than offering anything bigger or better to couple with the amazing camerawork.

Spectacle is totally okay, and film offers itself to it completely – but there is only so much that can be entertaining when approaching a subject matter in this way. Yes, the skiers are impressive and we are all enraptured by their skills, but no, I don’t want to watch them dropping down mountains and doing similar lines for the entirely of the flick. I found it disappointing and a waste of such beautiful imagery to not offer anything else with it. I understand the choices made in celebration of the mountain and what it has to offer; but I think film should give a little more than what feels like a well-filmed home movie.

Unbranded (Dennis Aig, Phillip Baribeau: 2015)
★★★★★

The longest of the films screened at 46 minutes, Unbranded is a documentary about four best friends as they travel from the Mexican border up to Canada. Four best friends who are also Texan cowboys, and who have decided to undertake this trip on wild horses – across some of the wildest, harshest terrain America has to offer. A journey that will make you both laugh and cry, this film was the highlight of the festival. The boys used their adventure to bring to light the campaign for wild horses and their struggle in rural America, traversing the landscape to prove their worth (and personality) over the 6 month horse ride from border to border. This film was also shown as a special cut version; but there was enough tension, emotional build up, and sassy donkey anecdotes to leave the audience with a strong impression of what the full feature details. Yes, I did say sassy donkey – Donquita is picked up halfway through the film and was loved by all in the cinema instantly – the true star of the show, and second only to Val Geissler. Val is an elderly friend, father figure, songwriter, ally and an all-round wonderful man, who’s insights and aid throughout the movie are a true testament to kindness and friendship.

Exploring emotional turmoil as the boys journey through all weather, all environment and all terrain – their light-hearted banter and comedic timing sets up the perfect balance of serious and fun. Watching untamed horses balance on the precipice of the Grand Canyon is enough to make anyone white with fear, yet after a sigh of relief, we still come away laughing with the protagonists and their sense of adventure. The serious undertone of the horses plight is always at the centre of everything that happens, eliciting a sense of empathy for the creatures as the film goes on and we fall in love with their individuality and spark.  Touching, inspiring and with important issues at its heart; Unbranded is a wonderful depiction of four friends ‘last hurrah’ before they settle in the real world – and understandably deserving of its People’s Choice award.

Nature RX (Justin Bogardus: 2015)
★★★★☆

A one minute advert parodying nature as a drug, this short offered some comic relief based around ‘getting some fresh air.’ Original and fun, Nature RX was a cute break from the intensity and strength of the rest of the pieces. Because the great outdoors is about enjoying yourself on a walk as much as it is diving off of clifftops and doing extreme flips!

Builder (Juilian Coffey, Scott Seco: 2015)
★★★★☆

Another biking film, this one focused on the enjoyment of building the tracks that the athletes practice and compete on – showcasing work from children to hardened adults, committed to their sport. Another documentary style film, this one was one of the first to show someone actually falling off; eliciting a lot of loud gasps throughout the theatre. It was interesting to see the ‘behind the scenes’ of these sports and the working relationships between the people that build and the people that ride, though more often than not they are one and the same person. It runs for just under 10 minutes, which is perfect for a taster in the life of sport without injecting too many flips and tricks that get repetitive after too long.

Including children was also novel, as the rest of the festival seemed to be engaged with what it is like as a fully trained adult, or an expert in the field. The innocence and excitement of someone young nurturing their passion for their hobby, as well as doing so with their family, was refreshing in the midst of expert solo riders.

Denali (Ben Moon, Ben Knight: 2015)
★★★★★

Touching, beautiful, and sensitively shot; Denali is the story of Ben’s beloved dog as he reaches the end of his life. Told from the perspective of the late pet, we hear the voice over narrative that brings the story of Ben and his dog to life over old print images and footage taken during their last times together. Named after the highest mountain peak in North America, Denali lives up to his namesake by enjoying the great outdoors with his owner, and supports Ben as much as Ben supports him throughout their years together. Both battling cancer, both living for the next adventure, and both connected by a special bond – this short film is enough to bring even the most hardened viewer to at least some sniffles.

The soft voice of Denali and his playful jokes in the face of such a sombre event make for a truly moving rendition of what it means to say goodbye to someone you love. The Bens have really captured not only the wonderful personality of the dog, but iterated a story that will resonate with anyone who has suffered loss, or indeed the effects of cancer. Beautifully shot and beautifully written, Denali was another festival highlight; an original look at the celebration of nature and what it offers to different people.

Women’s Speed Ascent (Keith Ladzinski, Chris Alstrin: 2015)
★★☆☆☆

Covering Mayan Smith-Gobat and Libby Sauter in their attempt to re-break a world record, we watch as they repeatedly climb, plan, and climb again around The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Coming in at only 4 minutes, there isn’t room for anything else other than watching their repeated climbs up the cliff face; which is interesting enough simply to see how far one can push themselves to attain the almost-unobtainable. This is one of those films that provides relatively intriguing subject matter and films it well to keep the pace strong and fast, but wouldn’t work if it were to be any longer unless a bit more background information was provided. It just felt like a lot of going up and down a rock, and the stakes weren’t played on enough for my liking – where was the fear of falling when not strapped in? How exhausted were they, yet still pushing on? Did they injure themselves? Was it hard? All questions that could have been answered to push the film up another notch. Maybe a fun title wouldn’t hurt either.

Eclipse (Anthony Bonello, Switchback Entertainment: 2015)
★★★☆☆

Now, this was another award winner at the original BANFF festival – coming in first for the Best Film on Snow Sports. The documentary follows photographer Reuben Krabbe as he tries to achieve the impossible by getting a picture of a skier during an eclipse; taking his equipment, determination and a host of excitable skiers with him into the high arctic. Arriving in Svalbard, Norway, the troupe face a whole host of problems that might stop them from getting the magic shot by the end of their trip. With everything from polar bears on the loose, a sketchy guide, unstable ice and Krabbe’s incessant perfectionism hindering the team on getting the preparation in place; there’s a cast of uncertainty throughout the entire ordeal.

However, as interesting as this sounds, the completely monotone voice over and lack of really interesting subject matter made for an average film. Paradise Waits had more snow action, and the eclipse itself (the whole point of the film) isn’t really shown for more than a couple of minutes – so how it won the best snow sports film confuses me slightly. I’m not arguing that it was a bad film or that it wasn’t enjoyable to watch; just that there were more films that I would have rated higher out of this collection – and I expected more from an award winner. In saying that, it was a thorough and fascinating look at the high arctic in ways which aren’t often explored, as well as offering a multitude of personalities and back stories to keep the audience to character connection alive and strong. You care about the outcome, but at the same time, it’s more exciting seeing the footage of the event rather than the picture Krabbe takes. It’s impressive, but maybe not worth it after you see everything they go through to get the illusive mountain shot.

A tight and thought-out schedule for the evening made the BANFF Mountain Film Festival a brilliant insight into the world of both nature and sport; with a strong mix of technical ability, physical prowess and original ideas. There were some flops and some films that felt like filler – but both only served to highlight the strengths of the main contenders. Definitely a success overall, and something I’d recommend to anyone that has even a slight interest in what the great outdoors has to offer: a good alternative if Nature RX medication is a little too strong for your liking.

The BANFF Mountain Film Festival is still touring the globe. More information about where it’s heading next can be found here.

This article was originally posted to The Edge.

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