Last week saw the Thrillseekers Adventure Film Festival bring a selection of adrenaline-fuelled short films to St Andrews. Here, The Saint brings you the highs and lows of its three-day schedule.
Currently in its eighth year, the Thrillseekers Adventure Film Festival has been undergoing its annual journey across the UK, and last week it stopped off in St Andrews to take over the New Picture House. This year, the programme included 15 short films, and was divided between three nights of screenings, which have been shown in over 30 cinemas around the country.
Tuesday’s screening contained four films, all shot in different corners of the world: Way of Life, Cascada, Not Bad and The Last Great Climb. After some adrenaline filled commercials from the main sponsors, Way of Life began. The Alaska-set film was focused on extreme snow sports, specifically on an adult fantasy camp set up in a mountain range for the most eager of extreme sports enthusiasts. The shots were fascinating, but after a while the length of the film – over 30 minutes for what was a short – dragged on. Perhaps its most notable feature was a 14-year-old boy whose skiing prowess rivalled that of many professional extreme skiers.
The second screening, a much shorter feature, was Cascada, a film about kayaking over Mexican waterfalls. This was one of the more striking shorts, as the cinematography was especially stunning and the narration allowed for some comic relief. The penultimate film, Not Bad, showcased and centred on extreme bikers in New Zealand. Ironically Not Bad was the worst of the bunch. Its length was one of its main weaknesses, along with the repetitive bike jumps, which although impressive in the beginning did not carry the same effect throughout. The last film, appropriately named The Last Great Climb, followed a team of polar explorers as they attempted to climb the majestic Ulvetanna Peak in Antarctica, and it was definitely the most memorable of the four. While it was one of the lengthier features, The Last Great Climb did not feel a minute too long, and for someone who is not particularly interested in extreme sports it proved interesting, as it was less about individuals having an adrenaline-filled adventure and more about a great human achievement. It helped that the team also contained some highly entertaining individuals. Ultimately, the crew of climbers stayed in Antarctica for a total of 35 days in the freezing cold and was able to climb a nearly 3000 metre high peak.
The first film of the night was Into the Wilderness; a great story with a great background. A three-day hike full of bears, mosquitos and challenges offered fun at some points, but in my opinion it was primarily a film about personal discovery, and finding one’s inner depth. Still, this isn’t to say that the short documentary failed to deliver in terms of adventure; there were great tips throughout for novice and experienced hikers alike. With its country music soundtrack and great visuals it was a calm and from time to time emotional film, with some funny moments thrown in. What I learned from its 15 minutes was that “Happiness is adventure, and happiness is only real when shared.“
The second film, Moonwalk, showed that you can feel calm even while you are thrilled. This is what happens when you watch this amazing short film. From the stunning opening scenes to seeing sports addict Dean Potter wire-walking in front of a spectacular lunar backdrop, the film strikes a perfect balance between tranquility and tension. The fact that Potter does not use any protection changed the whole atmosphere of the film. There was no plot, just Potter and the landscape, a fact that demonstrates the importance of the movie’s superb formal characteristics.
Karakoram Highway came next. Depicting a journey that takes place in the mountain communities of Pakistan, it told the story of the region’s people and culture rather than just the three protagonists – all experienced paragliders. Beautiful surroundings were the common element in all of the five films, however in this particular film the lives of the Pakistani people were much more appealing than the sport. A scene in which we see live chickens prepared to be cut for dinner was particularly powerful, and one of the harshest of the entire evening. There was also much talk about how helpful and excited the mountain people were, but a single, affecting shot of a girl shown for just a few seconds proved the reality: life must go on.
Subsequently, we moved to London: an amazing city at night, but one with an undeniably scary atmosphere. Stealth featured a young man who seeks to break into a bank using his incredible athleticism, and brought some fast-paced action back to the AFF. After three slower documentaries, the speed of the film had a revitalising effect. The concept was one of the most interesting and left an excellent impression thanks to some unexpected turns in its narrative. It was also great to see the contrast between day and night in London.
Flow Hunters, the evening’s final film, featured some amazing kayaking, and with the rapids and waterfalls of New Zealand serving as the spectacular setting there was no reason not to be thrilled. In the film’s closing minutes, however, fear was the main theme. Beginning with a description of the sport and the journey of the central characters, we then see the group of kayakers in a river, confronting near-death experiences with laughter and enthusiasm; but as relaxed as the characters appeared onscreen, for me the tension was so high I felt like I was the one chancing with death. The documentary manages to be quite informal, with certain comic scenes triggering laughter in the cinema. One of the things that I didn’t particularly like about Flow Hunters was its lack of concern with the challenges of the group outside their sport; but all things considered, it remained a great watch.
After two nights of daring ascents and terrifying plunges the Adventure Film Festival came to a close on Thursday evening, with a set of six shorts that promised to conclude the three-day programme on a high. As it happened, however, the mountains and canyons displayed spectacularly throughout the evening mirrored the peaks and troughs of the final set of screenings at the New Picture House, although the overall impression remained a positive one.
Beginning the night was Into the Empty Quarter, a chronicle of British adventurers Alastair Humphreys and Leon McCarron’s 1,000-mile journey across the Arabian Peninsula, following in the footsteps of legendary explorer Wilfred Thesiger. An abbreviated road movie as much as anything else, the film succeeded largely thanks to the charm of its protagonists, managing to weave a slight, character-based narrative around its cultural and historical observations. Its brevity was also appreciated, with McCarron and Humphreys effectively condensing 1,000 miles of trekking through barren desert into just 0 engaging minutes.
While Into the Empty Quarter admittedly lacked a little visual flair, the same could not be said for WHY, a glossily coated exploration of the motivational factors driving three extreme sports enthusiasts. Short but dazzling, the film made the most of its striking locations – Veracruz waterfalls, the stone arches of Moab – through the use of some impressive and varied cinematography.
It was interesting therefore to subsequently watch HOW of WHY, a making of documentary in which director Corey Rich talked through production aspects of his film, whilst also advertising Nikon cameras fairly heavily. Irking but understandable product placement aside however, Rich’s second short offered several moments of fascinating insight into how a film like WHY comes to be, making it a perfect companion piece.
Moving on, the final three films differed markedly from each other, both in quality and tone. The first of these, The Kyrgyzstan Project, offered an emotionally engaging story of three climbers flying from the US to Central Asia to both scale the country’s famous peaks, and exorcise their personal demons. John Dickey, Matt Segal and Eric Decaria had all lost friends to the mountains, and the former had experienced the horror of being kidnapped on his previous trip to Kyrgyzstan. It’s heavy stuff, but filmmaker Jim Aikman maintains a light mood throughout, with Segal in particular proving entertaining and setting a record for the most frequent use of the word ‘psyched’ in the process.
Far less captivating was The Beginning, a bizarre collection of canyoning videos welded together into a lengthy movie by BASE-jumping daredevil Warren Verboom. The issue with the film is that it’s less a coherent short, and more a series of demo videos strung together with no connecting thread. Indeed, after 30 minutes of extremely similar jumps and flips, interspersed with bizarre, slow-mo introductions for each of the Deap Canyoning ‘crew’, any enjoyment gleaned from the initial sequences had dissipated. Were the airborne antics of Verboom and company impressive? Certainly. Was The Beginning also something of a repetitive slog? Unfortunately yes.
The highlight of the night came in the form of a short, unassuming film from Australian filmmaker Mark Tipple. Duct Tape Surfing told the story of Pascale Honore, a mother of two who lost the use of her legs in a car accident. Having spent years watching her sons surf off the South Australian coast, Pascale finally gets the chance to join them when a family friend, Tyron Swan, offers to strap her to his back with duct tape, and take her out on the waves. The resulting scenes beautifully capture the essence of adventure: friendship and companionship, mastery of the elements, and triumph over adversity.
And though its programme might have been somewhat mixed, at its best the Adventure Film Festival delivered all of these and more.