November 7, 2007

Playing with darkness & silence, the films at the Banff Mountain Film Festival this year delved into survival versus death through intense profiles of the core psychology of people whose lives are defined by pushing the boundaries. For these people, life is a series of adventures sought and attained. Each new success brings the adventurer that much closer to danger and possible death, and therefore that much closer to the ecstasy of truly living.

Sometimes even success is sullied by the lives left on the mountain. In The Beckoning Silence, the German mountaineer Toni Kurz is left swinging on a rope within sight of rescuers, but unable to repel any further down because of a knot. Reinhold Messner’s decision to leave his brother Guenther behind on Nanga Parbat is called into question in Death on Nanga Parbat. John Harlin III follows his father up a route on the North Face of the Eiger, 40 years after that mountain took his father’s life, a trip chronicled by the film The Alps.

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John Harlin III climbing the Eiger. From the film The Alps.

Some don’t succeed. But for those who do, what brings them back from the edge of the precipice over oblivion is memories of love. Words like remnants, death, lost, silence, & last chance—pulled from titles of films in the festival this year—impart a dark and scary ambience to a life lived in the mountains. But other films talked about light & joy, and my favorite title (although not my favorite film) was Wings on Your Feet.

I don’t understand the the urge that keeps pushing mountaineers and adventurers higher & further, because I simply don’t have it. But it might be close to the same feeling that drove me to join the Peace Corps and give up hot water showers (among other things) for two years. It’s got everything to do with sucking the “marrow from the bones of life.” Thoreau said he went into the woods to “live deliberately” and to “not come to the end of life, and discover that I had not lived.” Deprivation of our senses hones them to sharp acuity, and separation from our friends & family makes lingering nostalgia into a sweet drug upon reuniting.

The question still remains—a question that many films addressed this year but one that may never be answered—whether the pursuit of adventure is a selfish & cruel endeavor. My favorite film of the festival, 20 Seconds of Joy, explored this issue deeply. The film follows BASE jumper Karina Hollekim through several years of her unique career. In an interview, one of Karina’s close friends says “people say that you don’t really live if you don’t go to the extreme,” and that that sentiment is, in her opinion, “completely bullshit.”

The preview for the film 20 Seconds of Joy

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
—Dylan Thomas

Posted by Emily Long

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