Thursday Mar 03, 2011

ShAFF 2011 - Film Reviews with judge Nik Cook

What is an ‘Adventure Film’? Is it simply a case of sticking a head-camera on some ‘gnarly’ and ‘rad’ dudes chucking themselves off a drop or over a jump and laying a thumping soundtrack over the top? When Matt Heason asked to judges this year’s Sheffield Adventure Film Festival I braced myself, but was delighted to discover a far more diverse, challenging and entertaining collection of films.

I’ve learned that adventure films aren’t just about action, adrenaline and extreme sports (though there are plenty of these at ShAFF!).  The hand-picked selection at ShAFF is filled with stunning landscapes, remarkable stories and human relationships.  One of my personal favourites is a gently humorous, introspective tale of a fishing trip.  This is my lowdown on the films I think everyone will enjoy.

In the modern, overcrowded world finding true adventure is often a solo quest. The act of removing yourself from daily contact with friends and family, immersing yourself in a strange and hostile environment and facing your own demons is one of the bravest things you can do. In Mazungu, solo canoeist and ex Royal Marine Phil Harwood logs his 5 month-long descent of the mighty Congo River. Covering 2992 miles, including rapids, crocodiles and hippos, the human contact he does have is often far from friendly.

The vast salt pans of Australia’s Lake Eyre are probably one of the most lonely and remote places on the planet. In Salt, photographer Murray Fredericks sets out alone to record their unique beauty and, in doing so, discovers as much about himself as he does about the landscape.

Finding a way to compress an 1000-mile walk across China into a 5-minute film sounds like an impossible task but, by using a time lapse montage of 1400 self-portraits, Christoph Rehage, in his film The Longest Way, gives us a fascinating insight into his trek, his emotions and his startling beard and hair growth.

Adventure can also be a shared experience that can test the strength of our closest bonds but at the same time reinforce them. Relationships that are forged in the Earth’s wild places are often the strongest and longest lasting. There’s no need to relive the adventure with each other, a knowing smile or a secret joke is all that is necessary. In Baffin Babes, four young Scandinavian women ski-trek 1,200km in 80 days across the Canadian Arctic. Relationships are strained to breaking point but, with bouts of Arctic aerobics and sub-zero skinny dipping, good humour and eccentricity triumph.

Sibling relationships are often the most fiery and climbing a 3000ft rock face with your brother is always going to be a big ask. In Brothers Wild, the stakes are massively raised when pro-climber Timmy O’Neil teams up with his brother Sean who, after a bridge jumping accident, is paralysed from the waist down.

There can be few stronger bonds than that of father and son and, in Dougie Down the Pet, four year old Dougie embarks on his first major paddling trip down Canada’s Petawawa River. The passing on of skills from father to son is inspiring to watch and the attitude of exposing children to controlled risk is thought provoking and refreshing.

Starting a skate-boarding project with youngsters who’ve lives have been torn apart by years of war in the capital city of a battle-scarred nation such as Afghanistan might seem like a liberal-minded token gesture but, in Skatiestan, cultural stereotypes are challenged and the children are given genuine joy and hope for the future.

Adventure is all about living life to the full but, in pushing boundaries of what is possible in challenging and often remote environments, the spectre of risk is a constant companion. Far from being reckless daredevils, most extreme sportsmen and women are obsessive about minimising the levels of personal risk. In The Swiss Machine, speed climber Ueli Steck shows us how a combination of finely honed skills, ultra-fitness from hours of obsessive training and fine-toothed planning allow him to achieve the seemingly impossible.

Weighing up when risk becomes unacceptable and knowing when to turn back is the key issue explored in Point of No Return.  The simple fact is that no matter how many precautions you take and wise decisions you make, in a hostile and unpredictable environment, things can and do go wrong.  

The price paid by family and friends of those lost in the mountains is at the heart of A Life Ascending.  Nature is always going to be an unpredictable force though and mountain guide Ruedi Beglinger and his family constantly life with that thought living and working with the ever-present risk of avalanche in the Rocky Mountains.

Adventure doesn’t have to be about pitting your body against extreme environments or cheating death. The normally serene sport of fly-fishing might not seem like an obvious subject for an adventure film but, in Eastern Rises, a group of friends explore the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East and, with ancient ex-military helicopters, vodka, irresponsible jet boating, Bigfoot and even a few fish, have an adventure in the truest sense of the word.

Even experiencing a familiar environment close to home from an alternative perspective can be an adventure. In Wild Swim: Wordsworth Country journalist and founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society, Kate Rew, swims Rydal Water in the Lake District. The childlike joy of wild swimming and the unique views from above and below the water combine to give a wonderfully peaceful and understated adventure.

I’m now faced with the task of deciding on my favourite films out of the sixty on offer at the festival and arguing their cases with my fellow judges. With such as rich collection offering so much variety and interest for all, it’s not going to be an easy job. Come along to ShAFF this weekend and see if you agree with our final verdict.

Channels: ShAFF 2011, Freeski, Kayak, Mountain Bike, Outdoor, Rock