I can still remember the feeling of awe I had as I emerged into the cold November air one night in Banff, Canada. My friend was going to a “film night” and I’d gone along without asking too much about it. I had stumbled on the internationally renowned Banff Mountain Film Festival and was experiencing a life-changing moment.
This was back in 1999. I was 23 and spending a year abroad working and living in Canada. I was hugely into the outdoors – hiking, biking, climbing, snowboarding – but, apart from a few extreme skiing films which ran on TVs in the local bars, I had simply never seen films like the ones I saw that night. Everything about the outdoors on terrestrial TV was over-dramatised nonsense and YouTube wouldn’t be created for another five years.
I had to share what I had experienced with someone. I tried calling home but words failed me as I tried to convey why a short film about a guy who explored the slot canyons of Utah had blown me away. But that feeling stayed with me – I have to share this.
Fast-forward four years and I’ve just escaped a desk job at the government and am working as a freelance walking guide. The trouble is, I’m not getting a lot of work. But I have a lot of free time and I love having a life based around the outdoors. I start thinking about the mountain film festival again and it seems to me that it’s time to make it happen.
I staged the first festival in 2003 in the old Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh. I scraped together some films from people I vaguely knew (most notably the late Andy Jackson – a whitewater kayaker with a talent for telling stories) and invited Jamie Andrew and Scott Muir along to give presentations. I sent a speculative letter to Tiso asking if they would support the event and, much to my amazement, they were enthusiastic from the off. My initial idea was that by staging the festival in a brewery, people might at least come along for the beer. But having Tiso promote the event and sell tickets through their stores was a huge boost and, incredibly, over 600 people came along and both nights of my fledgling festival sold out.
I knew it was an amateur event even as I staged it (films were screened off a projector attached to my old VHS player.) but I reckoned if I could make it passable and promise to improve, people would come back the next year. The main thing was to identify that there was an audience out there – and there was. But before I had a chance to start planning the next festival, I was contacted by one of the attendees, Iain White, who happened to work in AV and digital projection. Over a coffee, Iain explained how much he had enjoyed the festival despite how rubbish it had been from a production viewpoint. We got on well from the start and Iain has worked on the festival’s production every year since, helping make it the slick and vibrant event it is today.
Despite what I imagine some people think, the festival is not my job – it’s a hobby. I do still work in the outdoors, as Head of Adventure for adventure travel company, Wilderness Scotland. I produce the festival in my spare time. It can be challenging at times – especially as I now have a family and my two young daughters keep me very busy. I have a fantastic team of volunteers who help over the festival weekend, with some of them putting in some extra hours in the run up to the festival too, which I am hugely grateful for. But the majority of the work involved in bringing it all together – arranging speakers, sifting through the submitted films, working with sponsors, doing the social media – happens in the evenings or at weekends throughout the year. On more than one occasion, I have seen the irony in this work preventing me getting out climbing, biking or skiing...
The reason I’ve kept going each year is simply that I enjoy it, although I do also feel a sense of responsibility to the 2,000 or so people who come along each year. We’ve had some amazing nights over the years. I can still remember the buzz in the theatre when we screened the world premiere of the Hot Aches film, E11, which was about Dave MacLeod becoming the first person in the world to put up a climb at that grade. When he finally stuck the last move, after many huge falls, the audience was whooping, cheering and applauding. There have been other films which were just as powerful such as Lost at Sea, about the late Andrew MacAuley’s fateful attempt to kayak solo from Australia to New Zealand. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. And lots of laughs too – from Biscuit the climbing dog to renegade trampoliners – it’s all part of the EMFF experience, which is to entertain, enlighten and inspire.
We’ve had some wonderful guest speakers too. It’s been a privilege to meet them and fascinating to go for a beer with them after the show. Jamie Andrew set the standard at the very first EMFF but there have been many others since then. We’ve had big names such as Sir Chris Bonington, the late Ueli Steck, and Doug Scott, who gave a special lecture about his climbs with Dougal Haston, which was attended by several of my mountaineering heroes. But many of my favourite presentations have come from adventurers who are not household names, such as mountaineer Liz Duff (accompanied by Andrew Greig on guitar), BASE-jumper Karina Hollekim, and a very young Mark Beaumont when he was fresh back from cycling around the world in what seemed like an impressive world-record time of 194 days.
We’re delighted to have Mark back again this year to talk about his incredible 80 Days challenge. Sarah Outen is another round-the-world adventurer appearing at the EMFF this year who will have some fascinating tales to tell, while climbers Kelly Cordes and Pete Whittaker will share stories from their adventures on the vertical walls of the world. Personally, the lectures are a highlight of the festival for me – but then, I’ve already watched all of the films at least twice before the festival weekend.
Watching the 150 or so films which are submitted each year and sifting them down to the 18-25 films that we actually screen is a time-consuming job and a tricky task. There are some wonderful films that we don’t screen for a variety of reasons. When it comes to making the final selection, I spend hours assessing various combinations of films before I have my matrix moment when everything suddenly lines up and I know I’ve got the right films in the right place.
I guess after 15 years of doing this, I just have a feeling when I know that the programme is right. I look at it and feel, just as I did in Banff almost 20 years ago, that the films and stories I have in front of me are ones which deserve to be shared. I know that they will entertain, enlighten and inspire. And I hope that for someone, they might just be life-changing too.
The 15th Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival runs 3-4 February and is staged at the George Square Lecture Theatre. For tickets and full details, visit www.emff.co.uk