Dundee GOOD; mountains GOOD; film festivals NOT BAD. I have dipped into the Dundee Mountain Film Festival (DMFF) before, and old TAC lags might remember me getting ticked off by the Ed for gushing over Catherine Destivelle in TAC56. Other highlights from the past include appearances by Alan Hinkes and Stevie Haston. This, however, was my first weekend spent entirely at the Bonar Hall. There is a certain irony in spending a whole precious weekend indoors watching other people doing wondrous outdoor deeds. Essentially one prays for rain. This we got on the Saturday, so that was a bit of a result.
Mountain film festivals abound. Edinburgh has just started one and pulled a cracker by having Doug Scott talk on the anniversary of his and Haston's 1975 epic. Banff is the granddaddy, and several of the films on show here derived from there; but the DMFF is also an old stager and obviously warmly regarded by the luminaries speaking. It has some big-name sponsors, but the effort spent selling raffle tickets and home baking would imply that it still operates outwith any sort of financial comfort zone. This is gratifying, as it leaves an overwhelming impression of enthusiasm.
Rushed through from Glasgow for three films and a podium presentation. This was the typical mix. Mountain film festival is a slightly erroneous title, as the top of the bill in each session was usually a personal presentation with a slideshow. The actual films took us to Baffin Island, South Georgia and various BASE-jumping cliffs - extreme snowboarding, mental sailing and getting chased by falcons respectively. The falcon idea was certainly the most innovative. Teaching a peregrine to chase a BASE jumper seemed to require an inordinate amount of patience, raw red meat and, as was once said of John Lennon, "a throat of leather and tonsils of steel". (The falconer, unlike that of W B Yeats, was given to bawling his orders in a manner that made the touchline manner of Stuart Pearce seem bashful.) With the proximity of the DMFF to the Carnegie Lab of Physics, the scientist in me baulked at the notion of the falcon somehow accelerating faster than gravity to the tune of "six g". The bird may have pulled six g decelerating, but it was all "acc" and no "dec" in the film. But this is pedantry. Leo Dickinson was BASE jumping with raw meat in his hands at age 56 and thus deserves plaudits beyond measure.
The South Georgia film covered an expedition led by Chris Tiso with mad seas, several of his posh pals and a skeely skipper to keep them from drowning. Tiso is patron of the DMFF and his company a sponsor, but no nepotism was involved - the film deserved its place. Cleverly it combined diving on old whalers, mountaineering, penguin-spotting and the obvious Shackleton references.
The interval offered beer, coffee, home baking and perusal of the art exhibition. Then it was Ian Evans and his Himalayan slideshow. This could have worked and indeed almost did. The pictures were good enough and not every podium presenter has to be a badass climber. But whether it was down to the pan-pipe music or the trance-like look on the presenter's face, I (and those with me) just found it a wee bit twee.
I was late for the first film but discovered it didn't show anyway. The DMFF has gone completely digital, and while this must make for ease of cueing and reviewing, there were a couple of blips. High Ambition in the Himalaya did show, however, a salutary offering for those who see Cho Oyu as an easy way to do an 8000er. Eight semi-pro mountaineers with a decent amount of experience and some Sherpas with even more tried but couldn't prevail. A variety of relatively mundane complications beat them back: dislodged contact lenses, housemaid's knee (or prepatellar bursitis as a friendly physio once dignified it to me), etc. The drudgery of high-altitude climbing was well captured. Five hours of glacial moraine for every jaunt above base camp, for example. All the climbers appeared philosophical and were humbled by the experience.
Next up was a well-crafted offering about Tom Crean. It started with footage of Crean's bar in Ireland. Apparently, in retirement from polar epics, he was invaded by Black and Tans intent on icing him. Upon ransacking this wayside inn, the paramilitaries found a number of medals from Her Majesty and decided against capital sentence. Crean's possession of the sovereign's brassware was the result of heroic parts in the two great polar epics. Illogically rejected by Scott for the fatal final push to the South Pole, he covered a solo 18 miles to save one Teddy Evans while elsewhere Scott and Oates were writing their names into history. Not content with this, Crean then badgered Shackleton into allowing him to join his ill-fated expedition with its climax in the epic traverse of South Georgia. Surviving relatives mixed their narrative with the likes of Ranulph Fiennes to produce an engaging feature. (For the record, Fiennes now looks like the Duke of Edinburgh and appears to have lost several stones. Perhaps this is his normal weight, having had to carry flab to live off on his own calorie-deficient adventures.) The Crean film produced another of the technical blips when the last five minutes were just lost, so I never found out if he died in his bed or if the Black and Tans came back.
On the digital issue, I did wonder whether the computer-driven slideshows had the resolution that 35mm transparencies would have had. Quickfire action with snowboarders can survive any reproduction format however, and there must be a massive ease-of-production quotient gained by sticking everything on a laptop.
On to the afternoon and a series of shorts featuring the aforementioned quickfire action. Soundless avalanches in Colorado were followed by an ice-climbing competition (Ouray Ice) in the same state. Only two people completed the prescribed route - a man and a woman, Simon Anthamatten and Ines Papert. Is ice climbing the first sport where gender-parity might be anticipated? Next up, some mad bikers who jump about in the woods but who stun us most with some jumping and balancing antics on the fences of a car park. This film won third prize. (Warning: your correspondent knows a man whose mate is quadriplegic from performing similar bike stunts in the back garden.)
On to Sinners, an elegiac paean to skiing in the sort of powder that makes skiers look like they have vacuum cleaners under their planks blasting snow up into their faces. Then we're in Colombia where the maniacs' whitewater kayaking is only achieved via an uneasy truce with drug barons. Ridiculous waterfalls are negotiated and at least one visit to casualty is whimsically filmed.
At the interval I noticed that the Bonar Hall coat-rack contained nothing but Gore-Texes. With the addition of rucksacks, the two guys who entered in front of me could have been set for the hill.
Next came the set-piece of Saturday afternoon: Nancy Hansen, a highly personable Canadian who has bagged all 54 mountains in that country over 11000 feet. She kicked off with a comparison between her feat and Munrobagging. The main differences would be the technical nature of some of her ascents, the inaccessibility and the more select band of whom Nancy is the first female. She was an engaging speaker with a self-deprecation typical of all the podium presenters. Her round involved 400,000 miles, many of them on logging roads, and saw off two trucks. Some of the peaks were only climbed by one other party that year.
Saturday night is the big one at DMFF, and often sells out. This year it kicked off with Thumbnail, the overall prizewinner. This followed two women who insisted on kayaking from somewhere in Greenland to somewhere else. This in itself might have been enough for some, but they then further insisted on making the first female ascent of the highest cliff in the world. Someone knows good box-office, as every opportunity was taken to show off the tanned, toned physiques of the (settle down - Ed.).
The final speaker on the Saturday, and thus the king of the hill, was Dave Hahn, Everest multi-summiteer and Mallory discoverer. Self-deprecation was again the order, with Hahn claiming that, unlike the Thumbnail women, he tries never to have his arms above his head. The presentation included the now-ubiquitous clip of the Mallory discovery, but that can take a few more showings. Like Conrad Anker, whom I have heard analyse the same event, Hahn treats the Mallory memory with utmost respect. Again like Anker, Hahn seems the most likeable and humble of chaps, his six Everest and 23 Vinson ascents notwithstanding.
Hot Aches, directed by Kevin Neal, was one of my favourites. A low-budget spin through the Scottish ice-climbing season of 2003/04 - yes, it appears there was one. The killer idea was to get some participants to attempt climbs above their current skill level. Hence three somewhat photogenic young women were introduced to the sport in the film. But more riveting, a chap called Ian "Cheese" Rudkin attempted a climb beyond his grade. This made for excellent drama as exemplified by his un-self-conscious swearing as his feet scrabbled madly on the frozen Geal Charn waterfall when his last protection was measurably distant.
Then there was skiing down Mount Cook (this is the sort of thing DMFF punters quickly get used to). Another great film with all sorts of worthy aspects including a big nod to Maori culture: insignia painted on skis and a haka to send off the climbers. Double the issues pertain when not only does one want to ascend a big mountain but also then ski down it. Your correspondent is a pretty crap skier and an icy red run is all it takes to make him a knock-kneed slithering skittering wretch. When skiers of the quality of these chaps end up looking the same, one wonders at the severity of the slope. Skis are not crampons, and one slip means death. Suffice to say, they get down.
The weekend was becoming a marathon when we got to Kevin Thaw, a witty and engaging speaker and one of the few people at the event to have caught the notion that digital presentations can use more than one slide per frame. His covered three expeditions, firstly to Pitcairn Island where, having bluffed some sponsorship out of the Royal Geographical Society, he struggled to fulfil the climbing agenda - but did, however, manage to get invited out most nights by the locals. He then described a Himalayan expedition made possible by the usual sponsorship but where half of the money was spent on a cataract operation project for the Nepalese locals. Part of the deal was to have been the eventual ascent of Cholatse by the eye doctor. Sadly this didn't happen, but the venture was a decent attempt to plough something back into the lives of the hosts. Finally, Thaw teamed up with wunderkind Leo Holding to push a lightweight line up the granite of Fitzroy. Climbing sponsorship, although ubiquitous, has a long way to go before it rivals athletics or football. Holding wears his Berghaus and Thaw his North Face, but no corporate apparatchik has told them not to be photographed together.
The last speaker was Mick Fowler, the mountaineering taxman. Fowler is always good value, but the best bit was Ian R Mitchell's intro. As readers will know, Mitchell is a sublime anecdotalist, and freed from having to grind his own organ he introduced Fowler via an extended discourse on his (IRM's) own dealings with the Inland Revenue. The punchline duly arrived when the taxman tells Mitchell that his writing (for which he gave up a career at the chalk face) is to be treated as "a hobby". Fowler breezed through his own interesting career which involved two encounters with the police - but much of the presentation was similar to that described in my piece in TAC60, so we'll end here.
I have filled this review with detail, but overall it's the feel of the DMFF that is one of its strengths. The festival has its sponsors, as do many of the speakers, but it's still an enthusiasts' event run by enthusiasts. Some sessions were sparsely attended, but I found something of interest in every one. Although I didn't barge up to any of the principal speakers, it would have been quite in keeping with the event. One can't but compare with a rock gig where the most nondescript of talents has an entourage hanging around at the stage door in the hope of a few snatched words. Here we had genuine stars of the mountaineering world wandering around unpestered by the respectful Dundee public.
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