Banff National Film Festival sells out Isabel

Outdoor-filmmaking collection returns to Kingston

Screenshot from Youtube

From Saturday to Monday, the Banff National Film Festival presented the extremes of adventure filmmaking to three sold-out audiences at the Isabel Bader Centre.

Despite having different movies every night, the films united around common themes: escape and fulfillment in nature, stunning images of scenery, as well as an introduction to the personalities that bring it to life. The profiles of athletes and outdoor enthusiasts gave the films a sense of narrative and a human face to what would otherwise be a series of cliffs and snowfields.

The opening film on Sunday, Where the Wild Things Play, introduced this with a tongue-in-cheek critique of the male-dominated outdoor film industry. The film features a montage of women participating in extreme outdoor sports set to Cake’s “Short Skirt / Long Jacket.”

Meanwhile, the men in the film loiter around a bar, refreshing their Tinder apps and wondering where all the girls are.

It’s an important note in an industry that’s become almost synonymous with extreme surfer dudes slack-lining and mountain-climbing. The festival did a stronger job of showing more kinds of unexpected participants while still shoring it up to its standard high-quality video and location shooting.

Above the Sea followed, profiling deep-water soloist Chris Sharma climbing the cliffs around the Spanish island of Mallorca. Deep-water soloing involves freestyle climbing over water so if the climber loses their grip on the cliff, they’re able to dive to safety.

On film, it amounts to edge-of-the-seat tension as Sharma dangles off the tips of his fingers before plunging 60 feet into the water below. It’s incredibly engaging to watch the climber strain himself as he struggles to reach for the next handhold or improvise a new ascent.

The extreme sports angle of this film is grounded in Sharma’s emotional ties to climbing. His deep-water soloing trips to Spain were an escape following his mother’s death that soon grew into a lifetime pursuit.

The next movie, Johanna, only ran a handful of minutes. It profiled free-diver Johanna Nordblad cutting through the ice of a frozen lake in Finland and swimming in the freezing water underneath.

The film was a minimalist, restrained piece of camerawork that allowed the sheer silence and darkness of a Finnish winter to provide the ambience for the film.

After this, DugOut closed the first half of the screenings. It told the story of two English travellers deciding to build a dug-out canoe from an Indigenous community in Ecuador.

It doesn’t shirk from the effect it takes on the English filmmakers either, detailing their exhaustion during the canoe’s construction and sickness that followed their journey up the Amazon river.

Despite its humour, the camera still lingers on encroaching oil refineries and leaves the fate of the Indigenous community unsaid following the sale of their land’s oil rights.

It becomes an unsettling account, ending on an anti-climatic note; they sell off the canoe to a soldier in under 20 minutes and lose contact with the Indigenous community.

Instead of closure, the viewer is left with the closing title screens explaining that oil extraction has begun in the film’s locations.

The mood lightened when the festival returned with Imagination, a quick short film that featured a bored child in the backseat imagining a professional skier shredding alongside the car.

Afterward, The Frozen Road followed the journey of Ben Page, a cyclist travelling through the North American Arctic Circle. The film, through various Jack London quotes, reflected on whether “any man, who was a man, could travel alone.”

After close calls with wolves and harrowing drops in temperature, it concludes the journey should’ve been shared. Nonetheless, it was refreshing to have a more meditative take on outdoor activity.

Edges later profiled the life of 90 year old skater Yvonne Dowlen, who, despite her age and ailments, continued to skate until her passing. This was an audience favourite, primarily because of Dowlen’s endearing personality.

The filmmaking rightly takes a backseat to Dowlen’s interview that allows her unflappable character to make for a genuinely inspiring story.

Finally, the festival closed with Stumped, the strongest film of the night. The movie follows a climber with a stump for her arm, joking her way through the reactions to her arm and the increasingly difficult climbs she made.

It was the night’s best because it made a warm, funny case for recognizing that disabled athletes shouldn’t be the targets for condescending inspirational stories.

Instead, the film presents genuine competitors that pursue their goals as stringently as any other athlete.

If anything, the festival’s greatest value was found in expanding what and who mountain culture includes, with the brilliant filmmaking that makes it possible.


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