The People's Choice: Banff 2012, Part V

All right, it's a film festival. And the manic week in Banff reaches its climax on Sunday evening, when the prizes in several categories of cinematic excellence are announced. A couple of years ago, I served on the film jury at Telluride Mountainfilm. It's really hard work, staying indoors to watch every entry in its entirety, when you'd rather be outside on a sunny late-May afternoon kibitzing in the streets or going for a hike. But it was at Telluride that my fellow jurors and I discovered Sender Films' brilliant "Alone on the Wall," and thereby discovered Alex Honnold, the world's foremost free-solo rock climber. We ended up unanimously choosing that film for best picture, doing our small part to help Honnold vault from complete obscurity to "60 Minutes," where Lara Logan caressed his fingertips as she tried to divine the secret of his genius.

On Sunday night in Banff, we learned that 369 different films had been entered in competition, from which 79 finalists had been culled. My God, I thought, imagine the ordeal of the jurists who had had to weed out those perennials from the mere flash-in-the-pan annuals. During my stay in Banff this November, I managed to sit through nine of the 79 finalists. Some I attended out of a guilty sense of responsibility: if you're going to report on a film festival, you probably should watch some films. A few I actually wanted to see, including Sender Films' follow-up on Alex, "Reel Rock 7: Honnold 3.0," which documents the incredible Yosemite Triple Alex had pulled off the previous June ("daisy-soloing" the three biggest faces in the Valley back-to-back in nineteen hours). And a couple of films I had never heard of caught me in stunned surprise.

Thank God the festival eschews the largess of the Academy Awards. No celebrity presenters dressed to the nines (the standard Banff uniform is jeans, T-shirt, and a North Face sweater or jacket). No envelopes, no "And the winner is..." hokum. Just one presenter after another announcing the winner, and, if the filmmaker is in the audience, a couple of minutes on stage to thank everybody in and out of sight and to comment on how the footage was compiled.

There are, to be sure, some fifteen categories to be saluted, ranging from "Best Film—Mountain Culture" to "The Banff Centre Award for Creative Excellence," whatever that is. And there's a grand prize for the best film of all. But the highest accolade the festival bestows is its "People's Choice" award, as voted hours earlier by the throngs who sit in the Eric Harvie and Margaret Greenham Theatres.

A great film can make you laugh, or it can make you cry. At the end of "Nuit Blanche," a twenty-minute Belgian recreation of a failed rescue effort in the Alps, I burst into tears. The acting, mostly via fading cell phone calls from the victims to a beleaguered search-and-rescue pro relaying increasingly desperate advice, had the spare, understated economy of early Ingmar Bergman. Without hesitation, I voted for "Nuit Blanche" for People's Choice. I doubt that many others did.

The one film that had everybody (myself included) laughing out loud and cheering on the protagonists was "Crossing the Ice," an Australian documentary detailing the efforts of a pair of semi-bunglers, nicknamed Cas and Jonesy, to become the first explorers to ski without outside support from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back. As they begin their trek, they discover that a far more savvy Norwegian, Aleksander Gamme, is launching his own quest along the same route—solo. It's Amundsen versus Scott all over again, a century later.

So the festival comes down to Sunday night, and this year, among the fifteen-odd winners, there were two clear-cut champions. Early on, Sender Films' "Wide Boyz" won the prize for Best Short Mountain Film. Peter Mortimer, founder of Sender and of the Reel Rock tour, came on stage and politely grasped the wavy glass landscape objet d'art that is Banff's Oscar. Twenty minutes later, Mortimer was up there again, having won the Best Film—Climbing award for "Honnold 3.0."

The buzz all weekend had been about "Crossing the Ice," so it was no surprise when the film won not only the Best Film—Exploration and Adventure award but also the Grand Prize. Having traveled all the way from Australia, Jonesy himself (Justin Jones) came up to accept the awards. He looked as startled as a boy caught playing hooky, but a lot healthier than he had on screen, with blistered lips and blackened toes, as he neared the end of his Antarctic ordeal. He was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation.

The festival acknowledges the importance of the People's Choice award by saving it for next-to-last. This year there were two winners. The People's Choice for Radical Reels was claimed by yet a third Sender Film, "Reel Rock 7: La Dura Dura," featuring Chris Sharma and Adam Ondra going head-to head to "send" what might be the hardest single pitch of rock in the world. "This is getting a little ridiculous, Pete," said the presenter, as he handed an almost sheepish Mortimer his third glass trophy of the night.

Then the audience went—yes, wild—as "Crossing the Ice" won the overall People's Choice prize. It was a rare double—Grand Prize on top of People's Choice—at the most prestigious adventure film festival in the world. Jonesy stumbled back on stage, and amidst his startlement, actually broke out in a smile of relief and happiness.

"Honnold 3.0," I guarantee you, will make your palms sweat the twentieth time you watch it. And "Crossing the Ice," I have to admit, is a great film. But the Aussies benefited from a perfect and unforeseeable turn of events at the end of their race with the Norwegian. I won't spoil the ending by telling you how it unfolded. You had to be there...

No, wait. You didn't have to be there. No matter where you live, even outside North America, you can catch these films and the other winners sometime this year or next, as the Banff Mountain Film World Tour gallivants around the globe. Check it out. You won't be sorry.

As for me, I'll be back at Banff next year...if they let me come.