Documentary ‘This Mountain Life’ has U.S. premiere in Aspen
Filmmaker Grant Baldwin aimed to capture the wild-hearted and meditative spirit of high-country communities in “This Mountain Life,” his group portrait of extraordinary mountain folk in British Columbia, Canada.
In its U.S. premiere, the film screened Friday to an enthusiastic and sold-out crowd Aspen Filmfest at the Isis Theater.
His cast of characters is an exceptional breed living unorthodox lives, but they’re people who will be familiar to Aspenites and to any high-country inhabitant.
“I’m glad it relates,” Baldwin said after the film’s warm reception in Aspen. “I wasn’t sure, because it’s a really B.C.-focused film and bringing it here I wasn’t sure how people would feel.”
The spine of the film is a mother-daughter pair of trekkers, Martina and Tania Haik, who embark on a six-month, 2,300-kilometer-long backcountry wintertime trek from Vancouver to Skagway, Alaska. They bond along the way and battle weather so brutal that a negative-10-degree temperature is considered a warm day.
Between sections of the Haik’s journey, “This Mountain Life” introduces us to various locals across the sprawling Canadian Rockies, including a trio of skiers who offer a heart-pounding, moment-by-moment account of being caught in an avalanche while on a backcountry photo shoot. At the time, this slide — which caught photographer Todd Weselake — was the deepest recorded avalanche burial to be survived in Canada.
Weselake, Baldwin said in a post-screening talk, was actually the catalyst of the film. After sharing his dramatic avalanche story, Weselake introduced the filmmaker to the Haiks and brought other fascinating B.C. residents to his attention.
“I wanted to do something very different, so I started with Todd and then he told me about Martina and Tania doing this trip and I said, ‘When are they leaving? Let me film this!’” he recalled.
Baldwin shot the film for Canadian public television on a shoestring budget just above $100,000. He directed, edited and shot the film along with composing and recording its score — making it without a crew and traveling deep into the wilderness to follow his story.
It’s a visually sumptuous and occasionally poetic piece of filmmaking, popping with bits of animation. It opens with footage of a snow artist in deep powder on a glacier stomping out a pattern with his snowshoes and forming a massive snowflake.
Some of its subjects are looking for thrills. An ice climber from an indigenous tribe, discussing the seemingly death-defying adventures of mountaineers, says, “I’m not interested in dying. I’m up there because I want to live.”
Others are seeking solitude and quiet. Baldwin profiles the artist Bernhard Thor, for instance, who has been living off the grid for 50 years in a cabin deep in Cascades — sculpting and painting and blockading potential mountain bike trails. A section of the film also focuses on an order of trappist Dominican nuns, for instance, who live a mostly silent life of prayer in a remote stretch of mountains.
“Silence is an endangered species in the world today,” says Sister Claire Rolf, who also is featured skiing (shockingly fast) in her full nun’s habit.
“This Mountain Life” will be distributed in the U.S. by Gravitas Ventures. It is set for a March release.
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Snowboarder Jess Kimura, subject of the award-winning documentary “Learning to Drown,” will be on-hand for a Q-and-A at 5Point film screenings in early June.