Monday, May 11, 2009

Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour

What's better than being outside and playing around in the snow? Probably nothing, but the next best thing is surely watching others do likewise. Especially when they're insane-o pros. That's why the snow porn industry actually works. Turns out, people make videos about all kinds of other outdoor sports from BASE jumping to rock climbing and they're pretty cool, too. There's really only one place to go to watch all of the best under one roof: the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

The festival takes place every fall in late October to early November in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Problem is, Banff isn't exactly an international hub and tickets are about as scarce as sentences without the word 'like' in a high school cafeteria. Before you thumb a ride for the Canadian Rockies and sell a kidney to scalp seats, check this out: they take the best of 'em and bring them on a world tour. Not to say road trip adventures and renal dialysis aren't xtreeme, but maybe think about catching the show at a theatre near you instead. I took the plunge and I'm here with the rundown.

The festival ran three days at Portland's Bagdad Theater and all three days sold out. In fact, the show's closing on Thursday sold out in just a few days forcing me to scalp at the door. Black market organ harvest was averted by a kind patron who sold me an extra at face value. The format had a few short films (or sections from larger works), one feature length film, then an intermission, followed by more shorts. The whole night went about three hours after all the mandatory raffles and sponsor plugs.

Night one, a Wednesday, I went to with my friend Ben. We got there late-ish and ended up in the front row corner. Kinked neck city, population us. Fortunately, it would turn out to be the best night of programming of the three. The feature was called Journey to the Center and revolved around three BASE jumpers attempting a radical new project: a giant hole in the Earth in China called the Heavenly Pit. It had equal parts personal exposition, travel documentary and adrenaline-fueled action. It really had drama that I've never experienced in an outdoor film before. It was similar to First Descent, if you were to watch it never having snowboarded. Lots of great storytelling and at the end they do something that's never been done before and could easily kill someone. Easily the best film of the tour. Some other highlights from that day include a couple of cute animations. One from Switzerland called The Cable Car and another from the US called Papiroflexia, which actually played all three nights and is available here. A cool animation, but it's no Rabbit. Haha. Another short was from a trials mountain bike movie called Crux. For the uninitiated, trials is all about balance as a biker hops from obstacle to obstacle and/or rides across narrower and narrower features. It's interesting at first, but gets repetitive or as Ben said, "It's like lesbian porn, it's nice and all, but it's just the same thing over and over."

Day two I learned my lesson and got there early. Surprisingly there was no line and I walked right to the front row and took a seat. I dropped my sweatshirt to save it and went out for food until the show started. The feature that night was about a woman who was a world champion para-glider who wanted to fly with eagles. In fact, it was called Flying With Eagles. She seriously bought a fledgling eagle, kept it at a zoo and got a falconer to help her train it. It was a cool story, but not that well made. It also got corny when the love story between her and the falconer came out. Yeah, they move in together. They also showed a section from TGR's Under the Influence. Which actually had some snowboarding. An unfortunately low amount of snowboarding on the tour, but that's what you get from a spring showing. There was a funny short called Patagonia Winter about a couple British guys who try to climb some mountains. They run into some bad luck and end up backing off more than they climb. It did feature some classic quotes, "When the chips are down, he'll be the one eating the chips." Now that I mention it, that might have been the first night. Anyway, a good show.

The final day I scalped tickets and the line was two blocks long. I still got front row seats because no one likes them. In that particular theater, there's no stadium seating and the seats don't go all the way up to the stage, so front row is a great seat. I did the same seat save trick as in previous nights and missed out on sitting around for an hour. The feature that night was a rock climbing movie called The Sharp End. It had all kinds of crazy personalities and situations. Rock climbing is something I'd like to get into more. I go out a couple times a year and have a good time, but I've never made that big investment in gear to get past the gym. They showed part of a movie I've been looking forward to for a while, Rocky Mountain Sherpas' The Fine Line. This eclectic bit of celluloid tells the tale of the water cycle with emphasis on avalanche safety. Not a point-to-point narrative in any way, it's still an informative movie. I'm sure I'll buy it if only to see how/if it all comes together. One last movie I remember was Silent Snow, a documentary about communities in Greenland and how pollutants affect everything from seal meat to the ice sheet.

This fall, I'd like to make the trek to Banff to see all the movies for myself. Seeing only clips of some was little better than watching trailers. If I can't make it or don't get in, I'll take solace that the tour will be around. They even have showings in Antarctica, so check out the site and see when, not if, they're coming to your hood.


  1. Hey Graham,

    I stumbled across this post via Twitter and will make sure the rest of the BMFF staff see it. Please do come out to the festival in November-- we'd love to read your commentary about the event!

  2. Great post! Glad you enjoyed the show! Tickets to the Banff Fest are not as hard to come by as you might think. They open up new venues when the first ones sell out. If you think the World Tour is cool, wait until you see the main festival! Tickets go on sale some time in July usually. Call the "Box Office Babes" at 1-800-413-8368 and they'll hook you up.

    Hope to see you in Banff!

    Road Warrior (presented at the cool Baghdad Theater in 2008). Awesome crowd, great food!

  3. I will do everything in my power to get to the main festival this year. That whole buy tickets in July for an event in November could be a tough one, though.

  4. Hi Graham,

    Most tickets don't sell out quite that quickly! It's always a good idea to secure your seat for the big events early though, because they do sell out in advance.



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