Thursday, December 04, 2008

Best of Kendal Mountain Film Festival Day 2

It was the second evening of Matt Heason's 'Best of Kendal' roadshow, which for Monday and Tuesday had set up a high camp in Sheffield's cosy Showroom cinema, home to Kendal's precocious cousin, ShAFF.

Jude and I ventured from the cold comfort of our overpriced lagers in the otherwise Ikea-comfy surroundings of the bar, to sit right on the front row, for the full-on IMAX effect, dude, yeah?

As with Monday's films, these were a varied bunch. First up was Journey of a Red Fridge, directed and produced by Lucian Muntean and NataĊĦa Stankovica. A hard-to-place docu about a 17 year old Nepalese boy, Hari, carrying a Coca-Cola fridge down from the high mountains to the buzz and fume of Pokhara to be repaired. All so he could earn some money to supplement the peanuts he earns from portering for expeditions (5 cents a day!)

Along the way he meets friends and relatives, fellow travellers and the odd westerner. All are gracious, open and warm, with little of the guardedness and mistrust which now seems to permeate our culture here in England. At one point, he encounters two teenage girls bearing heavy baskets of hay (on a head-strap, as is the custom). One is dark-skinned, obviously of Indian ancestry. The other has the asiatic, Tibetan-looking features of a Nepali. Both are beautiful by western standards, and both behave exactly as teenage girls do the world over, flirting with Hari, whilst laughing at the 'tourists' making the film, with their funny clothes (the Nepalis refer to all westerners as 'tourists', even the climbers, who for some reason like to think of themselves as being above that categorisation).

Running through the film, pinning together this strange road-trip, is the powerful desire of Hari to earn enough money to buy a good education and to escape from the life which is set out for him, earning subsistence wages as a porter. At one point, we see him squirm as his elderly, infirm father, whom he hasn't seen for some time, virtually demands money from Hari, who is torn between his love and loyalty for his father, and his need to save what money he has to further his dreams.

Whether Hari ultimately achieves what he sets out to do, we never find out. In the more prosaic journey of the fridge, he reaches Pokhara and the fridge is repaired, as Hari sits on the dusty step outside, in the traffic fumes, musing on his future.

For our part, we see the spectacular landscape he lives in, the beauty of it, and we ask, 'why would he want to leave that place, those people, their culture?' But to Hari, it represents hardship, poverty and a trap from which he must escape. We wish him success in his journey.

That was followed by a 2 minute short animation called Climber, directed and produced by Carlos Villarreal Kwasek, which is about an ice climber, soloing a hard route, who has a moment of doubt and fear, and has to face, quite literally, his inner demon. Shown at ShAFF this year, it benefits from the big screen but you can watch it in its entirety here.

The third film, directed and produced by Justine Curgenven, This is The Sea 4 - Circumnavigation of New Zealand, is another road trip, a home movie of sorts, following Justine Curgenven and Barry Shaw as they attempt to paddle sea kayaks 1700 miles around the South Island of New Zealand. The film shows the hardhips they encounter, both from the sea (tide rips, heavy swells and the killer surf) and from the land (sand flies and a decomposing dead whale right by their campsite). It also shows that two people, ordinary brits like us, can embark on a huge expedition like that, entirely self-supported, and pull it off, making it look like any other kayaking trip.

The fourth film was for my money the best of the 'action' films. Taken from Hot Aches Productions 'Committed Vol. 2', 'The Walk of Life' follows Matlock climber James Pearson as he works to complete the first ascent of the route of that name on North Devon's Hartland Point. The route climbs straight up a blank, rippled slab of shale(?), for almost a full rope length (50m). He describes it as his 'silly obsession' and the route has been tried and eyed by the likes of Johnny Dawes and other stars of the modern era, all unsuccessfully, though these early inspections/attempts left a legacy of rusting pegs in the tiny overlaps and slots which occur sporadically on the huge slab.

James, to his eternal credit, 'gives it a facelift', removing the pegs, some of which are little more than rust anyway. In doing so, he creates a line which is terrifying in its blankness and its boldness, and commits himself to what he must know will be a fearfully exposed and run-out lead.

We see him cleaning the holds on abseil, trying moves; just enough of that to give us a flavour of his approach to the lead. Then, without further ado, he is on the route, having to climb the first 10m just to get his first piece of gear, a psychological wire which he admits wouldn't hold a fall. He works higher and higher, now a long way above the boulders on the shore, adrift in a vertical grey sea. Two thirds of the way up, he loses it. Something, a foot slips, a finger loses purchase, he's off, and he falls. And falls. He takes one of the longest lead falls I've ever seen, down the steep slab, maybe 15, 18m or more. That attempt is over.

He returns later, mentally and physically armed for another try. He shows no sign that his big fall has affected him, as he works his way back to his high point, then passes it, the cliff top betraying its closeness by the tufted lichen growing on the rock around him. He is now in a terrifying place, but close to safety. A last tentative move and he is there, whooping, hugging his girlfriend, whilst poor Rich Mayfield, belaying below, scampers off the rocks to escape the incoming tide. E12! That's the grade he gave it. Time will tell whether that sticks but whatever grade it settles at, it's an incredible line (or lack of a line), inescapable, committing and frighteningly bold.

The last film of the evening was Hand Cut, directed and produced by
Nick Waggoner, about the AAAHsome (dude) powder skiiing on the high peaks of the Colorado Rockies. Graceful, almost balletic footage of skiers and snowboarders is accompanied by suitably subtle music, with none of the fist-thrusting metal edge of other films of the genre. Cut into the film are voice-overs from old-timers who lived and worked in these mountains when they were still frontier mining towns, giving the contrast between the hardship of that environment back then, and the way it has become a playground now, for the bold and the wealthy. The film tells us very little, outside the grizzled voices of the pioneers, but the majesty of the swooping figures surging through the vertical oceans of powder holds us spellbound, like watching big wave surfers on a frozen wave of snow and rock. Almost made me want to ski.