I was sitting in a theater last Thursday and watched a person get shot on screen. For real. In cold blood. Soon after that I was viewing a carefree mountain bike dream trip to Argentina. ‘We sure don’t come here for ski porn,’ I was thinking to myself.
We were at this past weekend’s 5 Point adventure film festival. True to their mission the festival organizers were delivering a selection of flicks that held to their stated goal of bringing powerful films that entertained us but also promulgated values such as commitment, humility, and balance. The event was a raging success. Upwards of 700 people filled the seating to capacity (bigger venue next year?), all sorts of film makers and industry folks were in attendance, and everyone I spoke with was dazed at the quality of the film lineup.
While not in my view the best of festival nor something I’d keep on my Ipod for casual viewing, “Tibet: Murder in the Snow” brought the idea of balance to the fore like nothing else I saw over the next three days of retina burn. Indeed, back in 2006 I’d heard of the casual shooting of Tibetan refugees by Chinese soldiers. As no fan of countries such as China, I wasn’t surprised to hear about that kind of brutality. But I never heard the inside story of how the event came to be reported — I just assumed the murders sort of automatically became news. Turns out it was quite the opposite.
Long story short, it’s said that for years Chinese border patrol soldiers have participated in turkey-shoot killings of Tibetan refugees trying to cross the border on foot to escape Tibet. In 2006, such murder occurred within plain view of the Cho Oyu Advanced Base Camp (ABC). Everyone got on their sat phones and reported it, right? Nope.
Instead, as is typical of selfish and obsessed Himalayan climbers, most of the people in the Cho ABC that day chose to simply continue business as usual. Meaning get to their expensive guided summit, and get back with it checked off their list. Harassing the Chinese about a little murder now and then could get them sent home, or worse, could even get access to the mountain shut off. Can’t let that happen now, can we? But a few people in camp didn’t let it go. Among others who humbled themselves and let their spirit get the better of the egos, Romanian TV cameraman Sergiu Matai burned a hole in his tent with a lighter so he could secretly film the shooting, then slipped the tapes out of Tibet, and mountain guide Luis Benitez struggled with compromising his career by rocking the boat, but went public anyway.
The resulting documentary film is powerful, and introduces a dose of reality into the all too glorified Himalayan climbing industry. To paraphrase what Yvon Chouinard said in a film later in the festival “Those Himalayan climbers who pay for the summit and have everything perfect, and expect the climb to change their life, well, if they’re an A-hole when they get to the summit, they’re still an A-hole when they get back.” Apparently, Cho Oyu base camp was full of those sorts of people that fateful day in 2006, but a few climbers broke the mold. Thanks to them, perhaps the world got to see through China’s facade to what is really going on over there.
You can screen “Tibet: Murder in the Snow” here.
So, with that and other films leading in on Thursday evening, I knew we were in for a treat. Sure enough, 5-Point continued their over the top run of winners with films on the big screen such as the artistically textured “Border Country,” and the related story of three climbers in “Point of no Return” who pursue their dream of an immense unclimbed mountain face in China — and don’t return.
This year at the festival I committed to being there for nearly every film. I’m not a big festival goer, and I wanted to find out just what made an event like this any different from sitting at home viewing the films on the web, where most tend to be available (e.g., “Border Country” is available at Patagonia’s Tin Shed website video channel).
For starters, if the festival production values are good, you get to see films supported by an awesome sound system and blasted in blazing glory on a huge screen. That alone can make the seat time worth your sore rear end. Though the occasional presentation glitch is inevitable, 5 Points did an excellent job of this with their production and you did get that big screen experience. But more, it’s the interpretive side of a film festival that makes it great. In this area 5 Points delivered in spades, with MCs such as articulate yet spirited film maker Nick Waggoner of Sweetgrass Productions and famed climbing raconteur Timmy O’Neill (Tim was featured in the film “Brother’s Wild,” about him and his paraplegic brother climbing El Cap, which was excellent.)
I’m trying to think of some constructive feedback for 5 Points, and really, the whole thing was most certainly the best so far of the festival’s three years. I would offer a couple of things to the festival organizers: It is all too easy to use environmental themes to fulfill your desire to cover more than pure adrenaline. After all, talking about saving the planet is a lot easier than dealing emotionally with death or disability. But life is so much more than recycling. This year’s balance between environmental and other life issues was perfect, but I was reminded of how easily you can trend too far one way or the other when MC Brooke Le Van lectured the audience on how we should leave our Power Bars and home and buy local food when we travel. Seriously, we really don’t need high school level environmental lectures at an adventure film festival.
Another small gripe for me was the lack of ski films (there were just a couple of really short ones). I’m as much a climber as a skier, so the emphasis on mountaineering didn’t scare me off, but was the lack of skiing a result of the ski film industry being so poor in real content? Or was there just a tendency to theme the festival with less wintry subject matter? I’d hope it was the latter, but in all seriousness, I don’t recall any ski films out there at the level of “Border Country” or “180 Degrees South” so perhaps my take is more an observation of reality than any sort of criticism. If the latter, jeez, will you ski film makers ever come up with something more than a prep school student can shoot with a camera his parents bought him for Christmas (apologies to Nick Waggoner and a few other ski film makers who actually do exceed that standard)?
My favorite film of the event was indeed the conservation/adventure/mountaineering flick “180 Degrees South.” I’ll admit I had some negative expectations for this. So steeling myself for more environmental lectures as well as a re-hash of the Patagonia and Black Diamond creation story, I got ready to get my panties all bunched up. Boy was I surprised. My undies stayed loose as I enjoyed an inspiring 84 minutes or so of what was simply a great bunch of adventure.
180 Degrees is a story film — with enough climbing, surfing and sailing eye candy to keep anyone happy. The format is perfect. We have our hero, Jeff Johnson, who, inspired by Yvon Chouinard’s climbing bum days, manages to come up with his own formula for “bumology.” Johnson decides he needs to get down to Patagonia to climb a peak he’s been dreaming about. But instead of quaffing beers on a passenger jet to get there, he makes the journey the adventure. Along the way, Johnson gets involved in a long distance sailing trip that includes a de-masting which results in he and his mates being stranded on Easter Island. Of course the men engineer a way to re-mast their boat. But more, the surfing is perfect and Johnson hooks up with a native girl named Makohe who’s the island’s reigning surf queen, looks great in a bikini, and well, you can just imagine…
But don’t get the idea that 180 Degrees South is only about cavorting with island beauties. It’s mostly about living a real and balanced life — and not just doing so as a climbing bum, but as anyone. What makes it work that way is that throughout the film you get vignettes of Yvon Chouinard spouting his one-liners. Sometimes you get the feeling Yvon is digging a bit too much into his inspirational speech quip library, but mostly, his words serve to tie the film together and do indeed take it up a notch. For example, take “you learn that what’s important is how you got there, not what you’ve accomplished.” Yeah, that’s pop philosophy. But in a goal oriented environment such as mountaineering or business, the accomplishment side gets out of balance with the process side. I’m guilty of that. By supporting Yvon’s one liners with a content rich film, and concentrating on the journey, the pop philo is supported and suddenly you’re thinking, yeah, I could do better that way.
The denouement of all this is ,towards the end of the film, Johnson joins up with Chouinard (Makohe comes along to keep things “balanced”) and they attempt a climb of Cerro Corcovado. The climb isn’t great, they fight miserable jungles and don’t make the summit, but the ascent is presented as a journey that’s done well nonetheless — and it comes across that way.
As for the environmental side, yes, you get a good dose of that as well in 180 Degrees, but it’s mixed in so artfully it works. This is done nearly by default, as Johnson is placed in a variety of pristine environments along the way that drive home the point of earth stewardship. In the last segment of the flick, the environmental theme comes to the fore with a section on how a large area in Patagonia is threatened to be overrun with hydroelectric development, and how this is being fought by local gauchos as well as Yvon’s friend and North Face founder Doug Tompkins, who has established a huge land preserve. Of course we do get a rather one-sided view here (I’m thinking to myself while watching, ‘so, we all should be gauchos or independently wealthy, then we can live in an undeveloped Patagonia and eat hand picked oysters by a fire on the beach?’), but I’ll say again that this is all about balance (a la the 5 Points), we do need land conservation and preservation, and perhaps this is a frontline in the battle and those dams should be kept out of there.
So, three WildSnow thumbs up for my favorite film of the festival, 180 Degrees South.
In closing, let me thank festival founder Julie Kennedy for what she and her staff have done. By raising the bar on what’s expected of an adventure film, Julie, Brie Bath and Beda Calhoun are influencing the entire industry. As a result of that and a general maturing in the adventure film genre, we’re getting movies that are better than ever; movies that indeed strongly promote values such as respect, commitment, humility, purpose, and balance — 5 Points, the film festival with a conscious.