Untold Stories Review: BANFF Mountain Film Festival World Tour

Tina Page reviews the Untold Stories adventure film package, including Cholitas, Slacksisters and Piano to Zanskar

Being a huge fan of independent adventure films, I was thrilled to review the BANFF Centre Mountain Film Festival world tour's virtual Untold Stories programme. It forms part of their Spring 2021 live online series and this ensemble of films did not disappoint.

Whilst these films do encompass the usual elements of adrenaline, jaw-dropping action and awe-inspiring scenery you might expect from your adventure viewing, they are predominantly far more focused on culture, spirituality and humanity woven into some beautiful story telling getting to the 'why' of adventurous expeditions or outdoor sport. The Untold Stories package includes two hour-long edits of feature length international award winning films and three shorts with an abiding thread of finding one's freedom and place in nature.


Want to have the chance to review events like this for Intrepid Magazine? Become a member to have access to events and gear opportunities every month.


In the opening short film, Mother Earth, wanderlust filled hearts will be stirred by the visually spectacular landscapes of British Columbia's ancient forests, mountain ranges and lush meadows as the two seemingly contrasting worlds of British Columbia's First Nations people and the local mountain biking community demonstrate the deep connections that both groups share with nature and their environment.

Narrated by Daniel Wells, a member of Lil’wat First Nation and featuring pro rider William Robert this film will resonate with anyone who has ever experienced an intensity of connection with the earth when moving with any kind of agility and speed over technical trails. A truly 'in the moment' presence and sense of freedom is well demonstrated in the narrative as it shares a message about respect, listening to what nature tells us and appreciating every moment we have in the outdoors, something that I think we have all been learning to do over the last year!

The second short film, 'Tempo. Movements in Mountains' features mountain runner Kyle Richardson, also a musician who, in this conceptual film, uses his music to capture the essence of his tempo in movement over the rocky terrain of his Colorado 'backyard'. From calm, pulsating beats to syncopated notes and chaotic crashes of cymbals, the rhythm of the drums marries with his physical flow over the landscape in a freely expressive style.

This is a uniquely original film and whilst I loved the concept I felt that the visual cut back and forth between Kyle's running and musical performance a little too often for my taste. Whilst this does add to the frenetic pace I felt it detracted from the effect of the strong correlation between the physical and musical movements together and I did find myself wanting the camera to stay with Kyle's feet more of the time.

Piano to Zanskar

This award winning documentary takes the viewer from a little piano workshop in the bustling, colourful streets of Camden Town to a remote community in the high mountains of the Indian Himalaya. It is the story of Desmond O' Keefe, known as 'Mr Gentle' who, along with his two young and illuminating apprentices, attempts to achieve the task of delivering a 100 year old, 80kg upright piano to one of the most isolated villages in the world, Lingshed, Zanskar at 14,000 feet above sea level after a chance meeting in his workshop suggested it could not be done. 

Desmond immediately makes us laugh out loud with his droll yet witty, deadpan humour and steals the viewers heart as the story unfolds and we discover what a fascinating and complex character he is. In the filmmakers own words, Piano to Zanskar "conveys serendipitous and amazing events" and the complexity of the story unfolds to address development and it's impact on remote communities juxtaposed with the hardships and struggles of life lived in such isolation which is theatrically mirrored by the treacherous and arduous journey the piano and Desmond's small team of assistants and Sherpas make.

There are some genuine 'heart in the mouth' moments as the team careen down precipitous scree slopes and Desmond, despite never really being fazed by the fate of the piano, does struggle with the weight of responsibility of the consequences should anything go wrong, again metaphorically mirrored by the physical weight of the piano on the shoulders of those carrying it, and he questions at times whether this endeavour was a mistake. But there are also so many moments of simple joy, fellowship in the mountains and endlessly bright smiling faces.

The story fully draws you in and there is a wonderfully shot moment when, after all the efforts and drama, Desmond reaches his finger towards the middle C key in a breath holding moment of truth to see if the piano has survived it's ordeal.

A highly thought provoking film, Piano to Zanskar shows both a reflective and objective look at how the world is changing and how, perhaps, that can be both a bad and good thing at the same time for those directly affected but ultimately this story is one of unflinching humanity and the true generosity and kindness of the human spirit… and a big old heavy piano!

Cholitas

The second award winning documentary in the Untold Stories showcase takes us back into the mountains, this time in the high Andes as we follow the uplifting and emotional quest of five indigenous Aymara women from Bolivia who, breaking with social norms and stereotypical gender roles, endeavour to fulfil their dream of climbing Mount Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas.

The Aymara, traditionally of the Andes and Altiplano region of South America have long been discriminated against, economically marginalised and socially excluded but times are changing and women like these are leading the way. Once a derogatory term the name 'Cholita' has come to have positive connotations of empowerment for these women.

Accustomed to adhering to strong gender roles the five women ask, "Why can't a woman climb a mountain?" And so they set out, fully kitted out in their highly recognizable urban, traditional style of dress to discover what they are truly capable of.

The five women - Dora Magueño, Lidia Huayllas, Cecilia Llusco, Elena Quispe and Liita Gonzales - all have their own personal challenges but the film very successfully portrays how they draw strength in their solidarity and in themselves and shows their struggle with the contrasting emotions of missing home and family at the same time as thriving in their new found independence and freedom. 

It is a privileged insight into the deep and inherent respect and reverence the women have for the mountains, their spiritually and courage to try. With hearts as bright as their 'Wiphala', or traditional flag, their shared love of the mountains is so apparent it becomes increasingly relatable to all of us who are drawn to such places ourselves. This engaging and inspiring film shares a valuable message about seizing opportunities and not allowing ourselves to be defined by others. Cholitas is 53 minutes of joyful viewing sharing the journey of these women who are both captivating and unexpectedly really very good football players!

Slacksisters

The final short film, Slacksisters, gives a three minute holistic vision into how the sport and art of slacklining brings focus, passion and solidarity to the lives of four female high liners. Slacklining has long been a male -dominated sport but the film captures a meditative, cathartic and metaphorical side of the activity through the grace and poise of these four women who share the life wisdom and wellbeing it brings them along with the sense of support, strength and encouragement they gain from their sisterhood. 

All in all a highly recommendable ensemble of films that really do offer a complete package of adventure, discovery, learning and hope. Search them out, tune in a high definition screen to best capture some stunning cinematography, grab your popcorn, maybe a tissue and sit back for a fabulous evening of viewing.

See banff-uk.com/virtual for more.


Tina Page can usually be found undertaking random outdoor challenges involving running up mountains or over ridiculous distances that her creaky knees consistently complain about! She lives full time in her 'micro-campervan' in order to squeeze every drop of outdoor time she can but over our last crazy year has discovered the joys of spending time in one place exploring every doorstep nook and cranny as well as creating a bountiful veggie garden to provide all the healthy super nutrients that keep us active and adventuring.

You can hear more from Tina on her Running the Summits Facebook page.