February 25, 2009

More Than Cliffhangers

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The Banff Mountain Film Festival, a collection of outdoor adventure, environmental, and mountain culture films, rolled into town once again last Friday to dazzle a filled-to-capacity Kennedy Auditorium. This year’s festival, which ran from Oct. 31 through Nov. 9, received some 300 submissions from 37 countries. After the festival, the Banff Mountain Film World Tour hits the road, visiting 200 locations in North America and 28 other countries in a span of six months. Ithaca residents get to vote ahead of time on the eight to ten films they wish to see from the selection of 50 finalists, totalling about two and half hours worth of footage.
Eight films were shown this year, but I think the first shown, entitled The Red Helmet, was, at six minutes long, one of my favorites. The Red Helmet, directed by American Tyler Young, was one of the few with a storyline. In the film, a young boy, scared to jump off the dock with his friends, runs into the woods, where he discovers a mysterious red helmet. Wearing the helmet, he has visions of five crazy guys on five crazy adventures (all wearing red helmets), including white-water-kayaking, climbing and base-jumping. Then, emboldened, he jumps off the dock, red helmet and all. ‘Tis very cute.
Another of my favorites was the other super-short film, Papiroflexia, a three-minute animation done by Joaquin Baldwin. ‘Papiroflexia’ is the Spanish word for Origami, and in the film, an animated Origami obsessive folds an entire city into a tranquil forest landscape, and himself into a bear, after the urban noises disturb him. Save the trees, ya’ll.
There was rather an abundance of climbing films at this year’s festival. In Dosage Volume V — Meltdown, Beth Rodden, courtesy of some absolutely insane finger jams, makes the first ascent of infamous Yosemite crack ‘Meltdown.’ If You’re Not Falling was definitely my favorite of the climbing vids, It shows the days-long efforts of climbing phenom Sonnie Trotter to scale a 5.14 route in Glasgow, Scotland. (For those of you not familiar with rock-climbing terms, 5.14 is really, really hard.) In just eight short minutes the film runs the full spectrum of what you would expect such an adventure to be — a challenge, a disappointment, a dream, an unforgettable experience and, ultimately, a success. If You’re Not Falling won the award for Best Short Mountain Film at this year’s festival.
Every year, the festival features one longer, more culturally oriented film, which many look forward to with bored indifference, and which I genuinely look forward to. Asiemut, from two years ago, is still one of my favorite Banff films ever. This year’s film, directed by Andrew Gregg, entitled The Last Nomads, took home the Grand Prize in Banff. The Last Nomads follows linguist Ian Mackenzie, as he tracks the nomadic Penan (one of the last remaining hunter-gatherer tribes in the world) through the quickly-disappearing forests of Serawak, Malaysia.
The film is touching and heart-breaking at the same time, as Mackenzie’s devotion to providing some record of the Penan language and way-of-life races against the clock of urban development. Ultimately, Mackenzie sees the last nomadic Penan forced to settle, farm and labor for the logging companies that cut down their livelihood. The film also contains several gems of wisdom, on development, on culture and on the environment. Because the Penan are disappearing and all he can do is to make their tombstone as large as he can, and their epitaph (his life’s work has been to create a dictionary of the Penan language) as many millions of words as he can.
My least favorite film of the evening was The Unbearable Lightness of Skiing, directed by Greg Hill. Though the film had its moments, the endless trekking uphill was rather boring, and the short downhill moments not enough to make up for it (though the skiing lines were beautiful). On top of that, Hill narrated the entire film, and though the sentiment was genuine, the words were cheesy.
The final film of the night featured a man who has appeared at the last three consecutive festivals in Ithaca, mountain biking prodigy Ryan Leech. Leech’s film two years ago was awesome, last year’s disappointing, and this year’s, well, pretty darn cool. There’s nothing that’s showy in quite the same way as urban riding and Leech makes it look sooo easy. You sit there thinking, ‘shit, man, I can do this.’ But soon you realize, uh, no. You can’t. You want to try though, because the nature of Banff is to make you feel like a bum, and to simultaneously make you aspire to total bad-ass-ness. Go get ’em, tiger.