Filmmaking has always been an adventure. Whether it was Robert J. Flaherty trekking out to the arctic in Nanook of the North (1922), Werner Herzog pulling a 320-ton steamship over a Peruvian hill in Fitzcarraldo (1982) or Hubert Sauper building a lightweight plane to explore the remote corners of Southern Sudan in We Come As Friends (2015), filmmaking has always required, and captured, an adventurous spirit.
That spirit returns to the Boulder Theater, Sept. 12–13, for the 11th annual Adventure Film Festival.
With the tagline, “Make your own legends,” the Adventure Film Festival (AFF) boasts a line-up of 30 films of varying lengths, subjects, genres and mediums to give festivalgoers a taste of adventure, a sense of legends in the making and, hopefully, inspiration to go forth and create their own personal stories.
Of the 30 films featured at this year’s AFF, 24 of them are under 30 minutes. Bite-sized chunks for audiences to chew on while they are transported to far off places to meet people from all walks of life.
One of those adventurous spirits is already a legend in the making: the 14-year-old rock climber Kai Lighter, the subject of Colorado filmmaker George Knowles’s documentary, 14.c.
On the surface, Lighter is a dedicated student and a devoted climber. Lighter learns to climb indoors before moving outside to tackle the craggy rocks of Fayetteville, North Carolina’s surrounding area, which he does so with an impressive dominance. But Lighter’s skill as a climber is overshadowed by race. Lighter is black in a sport that is predominantly white.
“[Lighter’s] story was introduced to me by Sarah Wood, who is one of the directors of the 5Point Film Festival (a festival based out of Carbondale, Colorado),” director George Knowles tells Boulder Weekly. “I started to do some research online and everything I found was very race driven, it was very, ‘What’s it like being the only African-American climber in the sport?’ ‘Tell me about the struggle?’ … Very ‘how hard it is’ and the challenges of this racial perspective.”
Knowles could see that there was more to the story than just Lighter’s race and used that to the benefit of 14.c.
“I didn’t think race should really be an issue, because that doesn’t have any impact in terms of his talent,” Knowles continues.
And while Lighter’s talent is impressive, the real story Knowles found wasn’t between Lighter and the rock, but between a son and his mother.
Dr. Constance (Connie) Lighter, an associate professor in the Department of Management for Fayetteville State University, is a hard working single mother that makes sure her son maintains straight A’s before hitting the hills.
“[Lighter is] definitely an intelligent kid, and a lot of that comes from Connie,” Knowles says.
As impressive as Lighter’s skills and talents are, it is important to remember that he is still 14 years old — Knowles isn’t planning a follow-up just yet, but if “the right story” comes along, Knowles is there.
George Knowles isn’t the only director coming to AFF with a project that sidesteps the predictable route. Jordan deBree’s Every Runner Has a Reason follows San Francisco-based runner Ronnie Goodman. Goodman is homeless and a recovering drug addict, neither of which deBree was interested in.
“For me, that’s the predictable route, talking about all of that. I think many people are fatigued by that,” deBree says. “If you talk about that, it’s hard to see the person behind that story, you just immediately make assumptions. Not in a malicious way, or a careless way, it’s just human nature. You’re always looking for a shorthand solution to understand things.”
Instead of wallowing in Goodman’s past, deBree keeps the focus on the running and what that activity provides Goodman.
“I wanted to make something that tricked you,” deBree says. “The first 10 seconds felt like it was a slick, polished spot about a runner. The kind of thing we might make for a Nike [commercial], for instance. And then flip it on its head and surprise people.”
Equally surprising is how Goodman approaches running and how it improves and provides focus for his life.
“I think Ronnie’s story is a story of coming to terms with yourself and who you are, and finding peace,” deBree explains. “And he’s found that, in a lot of ways, through running. It kind of centers him and steers him away from all the demons that he otherwise would be vulnerable to.”
The director’s realization verbalizes AFF’s greatest offering: people using the spirit of adventure, the discipline of sport and the total hold of activity to advance themselves as people.
But no one does it alone, and Dominic Gill’s Comes With Baggage highlights the importance that a community plays when it comes to sports, and in this particular instance, bikepacking.
“The first bicycle explorers, back in the 1800s, had no choice but to go over all different types of terrain and horserutted, cart-rutted tracks,” Gill says. “And funnily enough, a lot of the designs that [bicycle manufactures] come out with today — which we think of as cutting-edge bicycle and gear-carrying technology — was designed way back then.”
Gill’s “yearning to make a film about the history of bicycle adventure” led him to explore how bicycles were designed and adapted over time to the types of bikes that riders rely on today.
And while the technological advancements interest Gill, the heart of Comes With Baggage is not about the bike, but the bikers.
“I think the key is, there are all sorts of different cyclists out there, which the film sort of highlights, and the one thing that joins us all together is a sense of belonging, a sense of companionship and a sense of enjoying the road for whatever reason you choose to enjoy it,” Gill says. “However much we get into the nerdiness of cycle technology or getting the miles done, those things in our minds are secondary. The primary importance is having fun on the road with companions.”
Some of the adventures featured in this year’s AFF lineup are fun and enjoyable, others are simply necessary. That’s the line of thinking behind Justin Clifton and Chris Cresci’s A Line in the Sand, a call to action concerning America’s canyon lands.
“[A Line in the Sand is] part of a broader project called Our Canyon Lands, a land conservation film series bringing awareness to our public lands,” Justin Clifton tells BW. “In their multiple-use designations, some of our most cherished public lands are under threat, and we need to stand up to protect them from interests that don’t necessarily jive with the landscape.”
To bring awareness and drive his point across, Clifton used animation and narration from the words of the great environmentalist Edward Abbey.
Clifton’s travels to the Abbey archives in Tucson, Arizona, proved to be fruitful, but Clifton still couldn’t find the right words that would fit the time constraints of the short — a problem that was solved when he hit upon the idea of crafting his own script by blending Abbey’s writings together into something that complimented the animation.
“We felt pretty good about that knowing that Ed had always said that he was pretty derivative of Ed,” Clifton says chuckling. “As long as we stuck with his words throughout, we [knew we] would have something pretty good.”
It is good, but A Line in the Sand is more than just a call to action, it’s an important part of AFF because it reminds the audience that if there is no untamed land to retreat to, there is no adventure.
“If you allow these wild places to be overrun by development, they’re no longer wild,” Clifton says. “And then where are you going to adventure? Where does the adventure exist if we don’t say some places are better left alone to exist as they are?
“We don’t need to try to tame everything,” Clifton continues. “In my opinion, you can’t have an adventure film festival — that has sort of basis in reality — if you’re not talking about some of the bigger issues surrounding our environment, our planet and things like that. … By ignoring that, you’re ignoring these places that we go, that we seek out this adventure.”
Clifton’s comments cut right to the heart of the matter: What exactly is an adventure film, and what is the purpose of an adventure film festival?
“The thing about ‘adventure film’ is you can pigeonhole it, right?” Clifton asks. “You can pigeonhole it and be like, ‘Well, it’s not adventure if you’re not hanging yourself off a cliff.’ Or a bike, or with a parachute, or, you know, whatever it might be. But, I don’t think adventure is that myopic.”
“The stereotype of adventure is getting out and skiing, or cycling, or climbing before breakfast,” Gill says, echoing Clifton’s sentiments.
“Beautiful shots that if you’re into skiing you can watch it with no real [plot],” Knowles says. “But I guess, in my opinion, I would lean it more towards some sort of storytelling.”
“Everyone, every walk of life, every street corner has a person on it that is having an adventure of some kind,” Gill continues. “I think a more accurate definition of the word [adventure] is stepping outside of your comfort zone. And that might be taking a different path than your father took through life. Or it might be trying to get a job for the first time. It might be losing your job, or choosing to loose it and going out on the life of the road.”
“I think it is hard to describe — to define adventure,” Knowles concludes. “Any number of things can be considered ‘an adventure’ just depending on what story is being told, and the subjects you are working with.”
Those subjects aren’t just crucial to the adventure film, but to the audience that attends AFF as well.
“Maybe they can’t go to those places, or they can’t do those sports,” Clifton muses. “But they certainly enjoy watching.”
And from Sept. 12 to 13, they can come together and watch it all in the darkened quiet of the Boulder Theater.
ON THE BILL: 11th Annual Adventure Film Festival. Sept. 12 and 13, Noon, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder, 303-786-7030. Saturday tickets $35, two-day passes $55. For more information go to adventurefilm.org/boulder/