Adventure meets activism at MountainSummit |

Adventure meets activism at MountainSummit

Bob Ward
Special to The Aspen Times

MountainSummit is underway at the Wheeler Opera House, and it may be the six-year-old film festival’s strongest, most eclectic lineup yet.

The program includes the usual movies about high adventure and bravery — yes, one of this year’s headliners occurs on Everest — but viewers should also expect probing films about moral responsibility, environmental issues, social justice and more.

Viewers at Wednesday and Thursday’s screenings enjoyed a recounting of a 1967 rescue on the Grand Teton, an exploration of author/activist Edward Abbey’s legacy and a film that questions the natural gas drilling occurring across Colorado. Three more days of thrilling and thought-provoking films remain, however.

Created in partnership with Mountainfilm in Telluride, the MountainSummit is like a younger sibling to the 36-year-old Telluride event. Each year Gram Slaton, executive director of the Wheeler, works with Mountainfilm representatives to assemble a program of standout movies to screen in Aspen. Inevitably, that means an inspiring combination of adventure, activism and ideas.

“I think we have our most diverse collection of films this year,” Slaton said. “I would love for people to kind of come in blind and just discover the vibe for themselves.”
Gram Slaton
Wheeler Opera House

“I think we have our most diverse collection of films this year,” Slaton said. “I would love for people to kind of come in blind and just discover the vibe for themselves.”

The “vibe” is hard to pin down, of course, but it derives from a love of the mountains — or, more generally, the outdoors — and this manifests in films about virtually everything that occurs “out there,” from raw beauty and wild adventure to war, resource exploitation, cultural conflicts and, to borrow a phrase from the Telluride playbook, “indomitable spirit.”

So, for example, the high seas are a natural venue for a MountainSummit headliner. But the film “Vessel,” which screens Friday night at 6:30, is anything but an “against all odds” adventure story.

Instead, the film, seven years in the making, traces the development of Women on Waves, a nonprofit that helps desperate women with unwanted pregnancies. Director Diana Whitten follows Dutch activist Rebecca Gomperts as she sails to countries where abortion is illegal and then transports pregnant women into international waters (12 miles offshore) in order to provide help.

In this unusual and compelling story, the open ocean becomes a kind of safe haven for frightened women in crisis. The poignant emails that Gomperts receives from pregnant women in Ecuador, Poland, Ireland and Morocco open a new window into the abortion debate.

“It was impossible not to develop an emotional attachment to (Gomperts’) work,” Whitten said. “The activists I was filming were incredibly dedicated people, and the need is so evident when you’re in the middle of this.”

According to the film, 47,000 women around the world die annually from illegal (and therefore dangerous) abortions. “Vessel” steers clear of the U.S. political debate about when life begins and instead spotlights one woman’s mission to empower other women, despite confronting angry protesters and warship blockades.

“She was straight out of central casting,” Whitten said of Gomperts, the film’s protagonist. “She was one of the most focused people I’ve ever met, she shoots from the hip, and she was a wonderful character for our film.”

Other films showing this weekend represent variations on the adventure-film theme. “Walled In,” showing Friday evening at 5:15, follows two kayakers on a quest to paddle an impossibly steep stream in California’s Sierra Nevada but also asks the unanswerable question: Why do these adventurers choose to threaten their own lives?

Showing Friday evening at 8:30, “Point and Shoot” tells the strange story of a young, privileged American (with obsessive-compulsive disorder) who travels alone with a motorcycle and a video camera across North Africa clear to Afghanistan and ends up joining the rebels in the Libyan civil war.

At 3:30 p.m. Saturday, a special family screening of “Once Upon a Forest” — a French film with English subtitles — traces the rebirth of a forest and celebrates nature’s creative force.

“High Tension,” showing Saturday at 5:15 p.m., tells the story of two elite European climbers who wind up in a visitors-vs.-natives confrontation with Sherpas on the slopes of Mount Everest. Saturday’s late show, “Queens and Cowboys,” chronicles a year on the International Gay Rodeo Association circuit as competitors confront both physical peril and social isolation.

MountainSummit features more screenings Saturday and Sunday, some of which include opportunities to hear from the filmmakers themselves. On Saturday and Sunday, two morning “coffee talks” at the Wheeler will explore some of the social and political issues raised by the films.

There are also free screenings of adventure movies at the Ute Mountaineer scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more details and a complete rundown of the screenings, visit