Are We Climbers Selfish?
So over the past couple of months I've watched in excess of 200 adventure films in preparation for ShAFF. It's very interesting taking the different genres of adventure sport and looking at the types and styles of films that represent each genre, or more particularly, what the protagonists are getting up to, which is then captured on film. I am a rock climber first and foremost and I do enjoy watching a well made film about rock climbing. However filming rock climbing just isn't that exciting compared to other adventure sports like skiing, kayaking and mountain biking, not to mention speed skiing and BASE jumping. The most obvious reason why is the speed of the sport. Climbing, other than when taking a big fall, is quite simply slower than the others. Furthermore it's often difficult for a viewer to grasp the difficulty of a climb or boulder problem through the screen; compare this to a 50 foot drop on skis or a mountain bike! As a result climbing films often have to rely on a heavy element of storytelling, character building and interviews, which have to be done well to keep the interest levels high. Ski and bike films (let's call them adrenaline films, and also include snowboarding) are more often than nothing more than a montage of very well shot action sequences set to a decent sound track. That's not to say that producing such a montage is easy, but the majority of the hard work looks to be in shooting the footage itself. Which brings me on to the question of budget. A bigger budget means helicopters, wires, booms and crew. Throw significant money at a film and the footage is more than likely going to be great (though it's not uncommon for such a film to be ruined by a wholly inappropriate narrator, or self indulgently over-long running time).
Having made some fairly large generalisations let's take a look at something which I think lies at the root of the matter, and that is what the protagonists of each sport are actually doing that is worthy of filming (expect some more generalisations).
Climbing is arguably at the forefront of true exploration. There are still countless mountains and faces that are yet to be climbed which draws expeditions from the world over. Such adventure often makes for a fantastic film subject, combining stunning climbing footage in an exotic location, with a strong story and interesting characters. That said, expedition-based films have their limitations. It can obviously be difficult to film the actual climbing when prospecting up a new two thousand foot cliff. Such expeditions often focus on mountaineering as opposed to actual rock climbing. There's absolutely nothing wrong with mountaineering, but it can be difficult to translate the hours and hours of slogging up snow slopes which seem to feature on most high mountains into anything akin to adventure. Most importantly though, the cameraperson / people are more often than not, involved in the climb themselves. As a result, when the bad weather rolls in, or the climbing gets particularly absorbing, the cameras are often put away – for obvious safety reasons. Expedition-based films are more often than not remembered as much for their strong / amusing characters and stunning mountain scenery as for the actual action. If you go to the other end of the climbing spectrum and look at bouldering / deep water soling and hard rock climbing films, these are, in comparison, much easier to film, but the action can often look repetitive and slow. Once again it is characters who can often lift one film above others, with a witty or insightful commentary, or a strong story-line. To my mind some of the most interesting and absorbing climbing films have examined a subject or followed a team (normally just a pair) on a specific challenge. What is evident having watched a lot of climbing films over the past half dozen years, is that climbers are relatively selfish in that the films, by and large, show climbers having fun climbing.
Contrast this with kayakers and you’ll see what I mean. Some of the kayaking footage I have seen is literally mind-blowing. 186 feet off a waterfall in a bit of plastic puts to shame pretty much anything else I can think of for example. Interesting though, on top of the amazing footage shot in exotic locations many of the kayaking films bring an environmental awareness to the table. Perhaps it’s because the very sport of kayaking is threatened by climate change, but I’d say that it is almost normal now for a kayak expedition to use their trip to raise awareness of environmental issues. The best example of this was Oil & Water, a great film about a couple of Americans who converted a truck to run on vegetable fat and drove it through North and South America kayaking along the way and giving lectures in schools on global warming. It’s a really good example of somebody combining their passion with important issues, and using the former to highlight the latter, and something we will probably see more of in films of the future. Snow sports sometimes broach the subject, again presumably because the medium on which they perform is in direct jeopardy, but the likes of climbing and mountain biking rarely do.
I remember partaking in a schools expedition to Greenland way back in 1992 where we split our time between science (we were studying ecology) and mountaineering / glacier travel. Suffice to say that the latter was far more enjoyable and is what I have gone on to do. A while back I blogged about a book that I read by Greg Mortenson called Three Cups Of Tea. Greg chose the other route. Having come down of an unsuccessful expedition on K2 he stumbled upon an off-the-beaten track village and from that moment, devoted his entire life to building schools in Pakistan. It’s an incredibly inspiring book, and perhaps so worthy that it goes beyond encouraging others to do their bit – how can you possibly hope to measure up to Greg Mortenson? There are plenty of groups and individuals who break the mould. I wouldn't want this article to ignore these people, but my point is that compared to kayaking we climbers appear a very selfish bunch.
To finish on a high note here's an example of one such group of climbers: we’re screening a film at ShAFF this year called Wakhan Faces. It’s a 2 minute compilation of the people of the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan. David James is ex military and has set up an organisation called Mountain Unity, organising treks and expeditions in Afghanistan an ploughing any profits back into the local villages. Sam, the film maker submitted this film to help raise awareness of what Mountain Unity are trying to achieve and we thought we'd help them out by screening it at the festival. If you disagree with the arguments of this article why not prove me wrong and submit a sub 3minute film to the Jagged Globe ShAFF Shorts comp (closing date Feb 14th)?