Thrawn: New Scottish snowboard film stars Olympian Lesley McKenna and Beira, goddess of winter

A still from Thrawn, the new film from Hannah BaileyA still from Thrawn, the new film from Hannah Bailey
A still from Thrawn, the new film from Hannah Bailey
For her new film Thrawn, Hannah Bailey set out to champion the snowsports community in the Cairngorms – and in particular some of its strong female characters. Interview by Roger Cox

One of the highlights of this year's Fort William Mountain Festival will be the big screen premiere of Thrawn – a stylishly-made short from Highlands-based filmmaker and producer Hannah Bailey. As the title suggests, one of its main themes is the very specific kind of bloody-mindedness necessary to carve out a life as a skier or snowboarder in Scotland, whether that means battling gale-force winds to access a sheltered powder stash in the middle of winter or tracking down thin ribbons of corn snow in April or May in order to eke out a few late season turns.

At the heart of the film is Aviemore native Lesley McKenna. She travelled the world as a professional snowboarder throughout the Noughties, representing Team GB in the halfpipe at the Winter Olympics in 2002, 2006 and 2010, but then, in spite of having sampled the delights of some of the most celebrated snowsports locations on Earth, she decided to return to Aviemore to make a home in the shadow of the Cairngorms, where she had first been taught to ski by her father as a child.

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“We wanted to make a film that was championing the snowsports community in the Cairngorms,” says Bailey, “a community that’s still very much thriving and resilient in spite of the conditions, where we might only get a handful of good days each season.”

Bailey and McKenna are both friends and business partners: for the last few years they have run Wandering Workshops together – guided ski and snowboard touring adventures which aim to make backcountry snowsports accessible to people who might not normally consider venturing beyond the ski resort boundary. As it turns out, however, McKenna influenced Bailey's career path long before they first met, thanks to the all-female snowboard films she made with her Chunky Knit Productions company.

"I was in my early twenties in Edinburgh," Bailey remembers, "and I was a little bit lost about what I was going to do, what path I should take. I’d never done any snowsports at that time but I was a very active sportsperson at school and I just thought, 'Ach, I really need to get out there and do something in the world'. I literally Googled 'Where can you go and live and work abroad' and it said 'Go and do a winter season', so I packed my bags and I was away to the French Alps ten days later, without any awareness of what that meant – except for having seen Lesley's Chunky Knit films.

"Thanks to those, I'd seen what snowboarding was through the eyes of women and I thought 'That's really cool, that could be something I'd like to learn'. So I went out to the Alps and found snowboarding through that – a lucky Google search and the inspiration of Chunky Knit."

Bailey went on to spend three ski seasons in the Alps before landing a job in London with Roxy – the female arm of surf and snow brand Quiksilver. "That was 15 years ago," she says, "and I've been working in the industry ever since."

Lesley McKenna in the Cairngorms PIC: Hannah BaileyLesley McKenna in the Cairngorms PIC: Hannah Bailey
Lesley McKenna in the Cairngorms PIC: Hannah Bailey

Bailey soon became aware that, on the whole, media coverage of women in snowsports left a lot to be desired, so, in addition to her work for Roxy, she tried to gain as much exposure to the content-creation side of the industry as she could, “whether it was writing features for magazines, taking photos and then pitching them to more mainstream media titles – any idea I had that could spread the word on what I thought was a really interesting scene."

As a photographer and filmmaker, Bailey is entirely self-taught: "I just learned by getting out there, going to events and snapping away,” she says. “I wasn't ever trying to 'become' a photographer – photography was my way of promoting awareness for a side of the scene that I thought needed it, and still does."

Bailey decided to move from London to Aviemore in 2020, during lockdown. "At first there was a feeling of being isolated from the city where I was so used to getting opportunities for work,” she remembers, “but that quickly dissipated and I realised that, actually, the offering from a creative point of view was vast, and there were so many more opportunities than I'd realised."

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Thrawn begins with a voiceover introduction to Beira – goddess of winter in Scottish folklore and also the creator of the landscape itself – and a sense of strong, female energy permeates the film. In addition to McKenna, Thrawn also features Lauren MacCallum, another Aviemore-based snowboarder and also the go-getting general manager of the environmental charity Protect Our Winters UK.

A still from Thrawn, by Hannah BaileyA still from Thrawn, by Hannah Bailey
A still from Thrawn, by Hannah Bailey

“I think there have always been a very strong, powerful female characters here in the Cairngorms,” says Bailey. “They’ve been doing amazing work forever, but they just haven’t had the same level of exposure. It’s only starting to come out now.”

Bailey’s next film project is another collaboration with McKenna, due for online release in February – a portrait of the global female splitboarding scene titled Wandering. In addition to McKenna, featured riders include fellow Team GB Olympian Jenny Jones, plus Aline Bock, Melissa Brandner, Kjersti Buaas, Lisa Fitzmoser, Corinne Mayheus, Anne Flore Marxer, Kristiina Nisula, Chlose Silliers, and Lena Stoffell.

The soundtrack, meanwhile, comes from US singer-songwriter Santigold, who has a history of lending her acclaimed music to snowboard films. "Santigold’s been really active in providing music for shred flicks over the years," says Bailey, so we’re really stoked to have her involved.”

“Also, we’re releasing it in February 2024 because that’s 20 years since Lesley did Dropstitch, the first Chunky Knit Productions film.” The wheel has come full circle.

Thrawn is screening at the at the Fort William Mountain Festival on 16 February, followed by a Q&A with Hannah Bailey, Lauren MacCallum, and Lesley McKenna, see; also at the Old Bridge Inn, Aviemore, 21 February, see; and at the Magic Mountain Festival, Skye, 23-25 February.