On Friday night I was at the Carriageworks for the Leeds leg of the Adventure Film Festival, a programme of some of the best adventure documentaries and shorts from the past year. I’d been excited about this for a while; even though I have very little interest in adrenalin sports per se, I love the raw emotion of watching people pushing their minds and bodies to their limits. There’s something really moving about someone committing themselves completely to the pursuit of a goal, even when the whole world thinks they’re insane and they don’t quite understand it themselves.
First up was The Last Explorers of the Rio Santa Cruz, following Leon McCarron and Tom Allen’s epic horseback journey across Patagonia, as they follow the Santa Cruz river from the ocean to its source. Accompanied only by their Argentinian guide Jose Argento and 5 horses loaded up with supplies, they set out with very little idea of what they were going to encounter, just a desire to capture the whole adventure on film.
The expedition was actually an incredibly poignant one; although the pair were drawing inspiration from history – from the diaries of Charles Darwin and explorer Robert FitzRoy – the real focus of the film was on the future. As explained by McCarron, it’s very possible that they will be the ‘Last Explorers’ of this amazing landscape, as there are plans to build two huge dams across the river that would generate 10% of Argentina’s hydroelectric power, but flood the land for miles around and destroy half of the river’s ecosystem. At one point in the documentary McCarron gets really worked up and makes a fantastic speech about how the world is losing its way, how we’re prioritising the wrong things and destroying everything that makes our world great in the blind pursuit of progress. There was a great line about how in the grand scheme of things this might just be one small battle, but if we keep losing all the small battles our natural wonders could soon disappear forever. I may or may not have had a lump in my throat.
Squeezed in between the two feature-length documentaries was Burn It Down, a short that was probably intended to lighten the mood. I sat tensed in my seat for the longest 4 minutes of my life, as longboarder James Kelly shot along highways at hair-raising speeds to a fantastic soundtrack. The brilliant use of slow motion allowed the audience to see up-close what a graceful sport longboarding is, and the incredible focus and balance it requires. The spell is broken when Kelly falters, is thrown from his board and skids spectacularly along the tarmac. We cut briefly to his dripping blood, to his regrouping and picking up his board, and the film ends on a high as he flies down a gently curving highway with perfect poise: no hesitation, no fear.
Last but definitely not least was my favourite of the three films, Bjørnøya – the story of three batshit crazy Norwegian brothers who journeyed to Bear Island in search of the perfect wave. They arrive on the remote island alone, transporting their tents, food supplies and equipment on sleds that they dragged behind them on skis, and proceed to document all their triumphs and challenges in an incredibly candid way. Inge Wegge, a writer and filmmaker, is the main protagonist of the documentary, and although we see some great action footage the real heart of the film is in the emotional struggles he faces along with his brothers Markus and Håkon.
Although their stated intention of the trip to Bear Island was to find waves to surf, it soon becomes clear that this wasn’t all they were looking for. This was also a journey to find themselves, to remove themselves from the real world in the hope that it would bring a deeper clarity to their sense of being. Inge spends much of the trip fighting an internal battle; just before leaving he had found out his girlfriend was pregnant, and the guilt of leaving her alone troubles him throughout the film. He finally decides that he has to go home sooner rather than later, but before the end of the trip an honest conversation with his brothers reveals a shared feeling that I believe is common to all adventurers: a deep, ineffable need to be where they were and keep doing what they were doing until they found what they were looking for. I hope they did.
Did you catch any of the Adventure Film Festival? Let me know what you thought!