Review: The Best of the Banff Mountain Film Festival

The Best of the Banff Mountain Film Festival
(Various, 150 min.)
The Gimp Monkeys
“I am overwhelmed by the magnitude of these mountains,” my sister once exclaimed. We were driving into Banff National Park for a family ski trip. It was our first trip to the Rocky Mountains, so the view was admittedly rather awe-inspiring. Nevertheless, I’ve never let my sister live down her silly attempt at proverbiage. Think before you speak, I always say.

After taking in The ByTowne’s annual presentation of The Best of the Banff Mountain Film Festival, however, it’s easy to see how my sister and other outdoorsy wanderers find the magnitude of the mountains so intoxicating. There’s an obvious lust for life and an unabashed thrill for the great outdoors in the eleven shorts that were presented in Ottawa last night. As an avid cottage with a mild taste for outdoor fun—I’ll admit that my strenuous activity is generally limited to taking a book to the beach or enjoying a few hours of leisurely kayaking—the thrill seekers of these mountain movies are an inspiring, if insane, bunch.

It takes a certain kind of mentality to appreciate the films from Banff at their full potential. I might not be a member of the target audience, but the awesome feats by these thrill-seekers make for great entertainment. Once one filters out the one-trick ponies and glorified advertisements for The North Face, The Best of Banff has a lot to offer.

The show begins with one of its lesser endeavours, Industrial Revolutions (Dir. Stu Thomson; UK, 5 min.) which received a Special Jury Mention at Banff. Industrial Revolutions sees trials rider Danny MacAskill bump his bicycle across some metal works with some nifty acrobatics. The balancing act is worthy of Cirque du Soleil, but the film could have done a lot more with all the discarded remnants littering the mountainside. After the cool bike tricks montage comes the impressive documentary The Gimp Monkeys (Dir. Mikey Schaefer; USA, 8 min.), which tells of a trio of climbers that defied their doctors’ diagnoses. Their climb is inspiring, as it shows there is no limit to what the human body—or mind—can do.

Another notable doc is the kayaking adventure Flow Hunters (Dir. Jon Forder; New Zealand, 9 min.). A true white-knuckler, Flow Hunters is a thrilling tale of extreme water sports. One of the few films of the festival truly to acknowledge the dangers in extreme sports, Flow Hunters shows how the thrill of pushing the limits helps these athletes feel alive when one bad stroke could be fatal. Featuring some of the most exciting (and cinematic) footage of the selection, Flow Hunters is an exciting, suspenseful doc. Similarly, the programme’s final film, Reel Rock 7 Honnold 3.0 (Dir. Josh Lowell, Peter Mortimer, Nick Rosen, Alex Lowther; USA, 33 min.), follows one passionate rock climber who achieves one crazy goal after another, all without the aid of a rope. Winner of Best Film (Climbing) at the fest, Honnold is a one man-machine. Who needs a ladder when you can climb a wall with your bare hands?

Some of the outdoor enthusiasts of the fest don’t even have hands. They have paws. It wouldn’t be a festival celebrating the wilderness without a few four-legged friends, right? For example, the highly entertaining Lily Shreds Trailside (Dir. Ross Downard; USA, 4 min.) stars an energetic dog named Lily that loves tearing up the mountainside just as much as the humans of the other films do. Frantic and fearless, Lily can do a roster of wild tricks as she runs alongside her owner who captures the fun while cycling alongside her. Watch out, Uggie!

Animals provide some entertainment, but they add an important environmental message to the fest as well. Highway Wilding (Dir. Leanne Allison; Canada, 13 min.) offers a fascinating look at how human development has affected the wildlife within our national parks. Subjects in Banff National Park explain how the heavy flow of traffic that cuts through the park along the TransCanada Highway results in an unacceptable number of animals killed by collisions; therefore, conservations and zoologists have helped save the lives of animals with the creation of overpasses and underpasses. Highway Wilding shows the effectiveness of these bridges by revealing the fascinating migration patterns of a few animals. Incorporated with the research is some very exciting footage of the animals in action, included one smarter-than-the-average-bear that lifts barbed wire fences for her cubs and a rambunctious wolverine – a rare sight! Fans of Highway Wilding should definitely seek out the interactive NFB film Bear 71, which offers a similar tale, but underscores the peculiar element that arises when a portly bear avoids a collision with a shiny SUV by using an overpass. That doesn’t seem natural, no matter much the overpass is spruced up.
Crossing the Ice
The Best of Banff, finally, is the Mountain Festival’s big prizewinner. Winner of three awards—the Mountain Equipment Co-op Grand Prize, the Nemo’s People’s Choice Award, and the prize for Best Film (Exploration and Adventure)—Crossing the Ice (Dir. Justin Jones; Australia, 44 min.) is a riveting tale of sport and survival. It’s a documentary about two zany friends named Cas and Jonesy who decide to make history by being the first men to trek across Antarctica to the South Pole and back. They plan to do it unassisted and on cross-country skis. It’s an insane expedition that many travellers have tried to do and failed. History repeats itself, too, when Cas and Jonesy discover that a Norwegian strongman is embarking on the same quest. One of the few films in the festival to capture the all-consuming madness of extreme sports, Crossing the Ice reveals why an individual could be so driven to the extreme, even when the result is exhausting, nearly fatal. It often doesn’t seem all that fun, either, as the friends find themselves on a physically—and emotionally—draining odyssey. Audience members will, too, since the friends’ adventure is documented with awesome footage of the rough Antarctic weather. In spite of the extremities, though, the two friends have an unbreakable spirit and passion for their quest. The contest ultimately becomes an inspiring one, as the explorers are pushed to near madness in the pursuit of sport and glory. Travel is a drug, it seems, and this trip to Antarctica provides a real high.

Anyone seeking a gateway drug to nip the travel bug should take in The Best of Banff. The scenery alone is worth seeing the presentation on a big screen. Moonwalk (Dir. Mikey Schaefer; USA, 4 min), for example, offers some lovely cinematography. Thanks to the imagery of films like Moonwalk or the thrill of docs like Flow Hunters, I, too, am overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mountains, but it have little motivation to climb them myself. (Perhaps a leisurely hike?) As an avid cinephile, though, I can only watch the travel stories and take it in like a reading of Gulliver’s Travels. It’s great entertainment, but it doesn’t really make me want to hop a plane to Lilliput. I will never understand what could motivate someone to take a cross-country ski trip to the South Pole or to scale rocks for eighteen hours straight without the aid of a harness. Whether the answer is egotism or the spectacle of fitness, or whether these athletes do it for the pure the thrill of the sport or for a personal goal, I must admit that most of the feats captured in these films are ones that I could never even hope to achieve.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)  

The Best of the Banff Mountain Film Festival screened in Ottawa at The ByTowne.
More info on the fest can be found at http://www.banffcentre.ca/mountainfestival/.