Shortly to tour the UK, this festival of exhilarating documentaries expands our notions of human possibility – and focuses attention on inequality and the environment
The Banff Mountain film festival opens the door to the inspiring stories of people who simultaneously confront their physical and mental limits and the elements. And with this year’s festival featuring films on a lawyer running ultra marathons to help women in Afghanistan, a mountain-biking family living with disability, and the first woman to kayak down a 30-metre waterfall, there’s more than a hint of activism over environmental and equality concerns.
The festival, which began in 1976, celebrates and showcases the best of mountain culture, sports, and adventure. Over 2023, it will tour the world, with in-person and online screenings taking place in more than 40 countries, including more than 50 cities in the UK and Ireland.
Its mission is to promote an understanding and appreciation of nature, and give people the opportunity to share their passion and vision.
You’ll probably find yourself making some strange expressions and steadying yourself in your seat as you watch Rafael Bridi attempt to walk a slackline between two hot-air balloons, in a world-record breaking attempt for the highest slackline ever walked. At almost 2,000 metres above the ground, the breathtaking documentary Walking On Clouds takes viewers into the sky over Bridi’s home state of Santa Catarina, Brazil.
“They are images that bring a parallel of how human beings are capable and how small we are on planet Earth,” says Bridi. “These are scenes that mix the peace of the moment with the anguish of many people and their fear of heights. I like looking at the audience and connecting with their facial expressions in these moments of the movie.
“When I did the walk I felt very present and privileged to be able to be in such a high and free place. It is not fear that takes over, but the motivation and immense joy that comes from being able to carry out such an audacious highline project. The immense freedom is what drives me.”
Free To Run tells the story of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan through the experience of Stephanie Case. The UN human rights attorney ran ultramarathons to raise money for a women’s shelter in Kabul. But through speaking with the women in the shelter, it became clear they wanted the freedom to be able to run through the mountains like Case.
She set up Free to Run and empowered thousands of women and girls to follow in her footsteps. The 30-minute documentary takes us between two moments: Case attempting to evacuate and support the team she works with in Afghanistan in July 2021, and her navigating the punishing Tor des Glaciers ultramarathon less than two months later.
“Women continue to be underrepresented in public spaces, whether in Afghanistan or in the UK and my aim – through the film, through my charity, and through my running – is to increase the visibility of women on and off the trail,” Case says. “When women are visible, it becomes more difficult to deny their rights, and that is why it is critical to amplify the stories of women like [the charity’s alumni] Zahra and Zeinab.”
Many films in the festival programme turn mainstream expectations and stereotypes on their head. Take Wild Waters, where over 45 minutes we are introduced to the boundary-pushing French kayaker Nouria Newman.
We watch Newman become the first woman to kayak a 100-foot waterfall, the Pucuno in Ecuador. The camera angles are exhilarating as you freefall with Newman, but the documentary also reveals the beauty and power of water.
“One of the best parts of the process was to realise the impact she had on the kayaking scene,” said the film’s director David Arnaud, who is also a former pro-kayaker. “Whitewater kayaking is a very male-dominated sport. However, there was never any hesitation from any of the top kayakers who I interviewed to recognise the strength and sometimes superiority of Nouria in the sport.”
The Nine Wheels is a documentary which tells the story of the Schneeberger family. Future mountain bike stars Emric, 10, and Raoul, 13, and their parents Toni and Laetitia. When Laetitia was diagnosed with a neurodegenerative disease, they sold their house and began an adventure-filled life on the road as a mountain-biking family. The emotional and inspiring film shows what is possible when faced with adversity.
Another refreshing and inspiring character is Betty Birrell from the misty forests above North Vancouver, Canada. She is the subject of North Shore Betty. After pioneering women’s wave sailing in her youth, she took up mountain biking at the age of 45 – about 30 years ago. Now a well-known name on the complex trails in British Columbia, the single mother is an inspiration to her son and community.
Film-maker Darcy Hennessey Turenne says the part of the film viewers will find most surprising is Betty’s age, which she reveals at the end of the documentary. Betty comes across incredibly young and energetic as she casually explains all the bones in her body she’s broken before laughing about how it doesn’t bother her.
“I feel like we make so many excuses as we age as to why we shouldn’t do things – even those we love.” says Turenne. “Betty will make you second guess those excuses and give you a reason to say ‘yes’.”
“I’m going to keep riding, into my 90s,” Betty says in the film. And after watching it, that’s totally believable.
The Banff Mountain film festival is touring the UK and Ireland until November, including in Edinburgh, Galway, Brighton, London and Brecon. You can see the full line up and buy tickets here.