Former Aspenite premieres ‘Out Living It’ at Shortsfest |

Former Aspenite premieres ‘Out Living It’ at Shortsfest

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Contributed photo"Out Living It," a documentary by former Aspenite Michael Brown, premieres at 5:30 p.m. Saturday, April 14, at Aspen Shortsfest.

ASPEN – Documentary filmmakers learn not to get too attached to ideas before their time. There are loads of potential projects, and before a filmmaker gets married to one, timing and financing need to line up in the project’s favor.

“There are always stories out there, on the periphery,” said Boulder-based Michael Brown, who lived in Aspen in the late ’90s, when he worked on the TV series “Adventure Quest” with local filmmaker John Wilcox. “And once in a while, one lands.”

But there are also story ideas that a filmmaker keeps close in mind, knowing they are ideas he can illuminate, ones that have personal meaning. For Brown, it was a story involving cancer. When Brown was living in Aspen, he got a call that the cause of the seizures his brother Gordon had been suffering was a brain tumor. Brown quickly came to realize that cancer doesn’t strike an individual – it affects the patient’s entire orbit, including family.

“Some part of me went through that,” Brown said of his brother’s diagnosis. “The families of cancer survivors have to go through that as well. The cancer survivor is the eye of the storm, the calm spot in the middle fighting their own storm. They’re at the center, and though it’s hard for them, it’s the people around them who get affected the most.”

Brown put that cancer experience to the side as he focused on making films. He made his debut with “Everest Dreams,” created from footage of Brown’s first ascent of Everest, in 2000. Brown calls it a “terrible, forgettable film,” but it was not so bad that it discouraged him from making more. His more accomplished, memorable works include “Farther Than the Eye Can See,” about the Everest summiting by blind climber Erik Weihenmayer; “3 Peaks 3 Weeks,” about a group of women climbing 10 African peaks to raise money to benefit East Africa; and “Light of the Himalaya,” which documented a group of eye surgeons performing cataract surgeries in Nepal.

Among his most recent projects is the feature-length “High Ground,” about a group of wounded veterans climbing in Nepal. The film, which had its premiere in February at the Boulder International Film Festival, was produced by the producer of “The Lion King,” and the sound editing was done at George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch in California.

In part because of the humanistic nature of his work, Brown was invited last summer to make a film about First Descents, a Denver-based organization that uses outdoor adventures – kayaking and rock climbing – to help young adult cancer survivors move past their illness and treatments.

“This one, it was, ‘Oh, great. I love this,'” said Brown, a tall, engaging 46-year-old who grew up in Vail and Montana and learned filmmaking technique from his father, who also worked with Wilcox. “I was thrilled at that chance. It was a chance to heal in myself, to confront these old things that you just sort of put away. The pain back then, the fear, was intense.”

Brown’s 39-minute film “Out Living It,” which has its world premiere at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at Aspen Shortsfest, focuses on four cancer survivors as they paddle and climb. For some, simply being 100 feet up a rock is a monumental feat. For all of them, the most unthinkable accomplishment of all is that they are defying cancer: Their illness, their surgeries, their medical treatments haven’t stopped them from pushing forward.

“I think what cancer takes away, First Descents really gives you back,” Brown said. “It allows them to see they’re stronger than they ever thought they could be.”

Capturing that kind of emotion on film seems an easy enough task. The participants in First Descents’ two-week camps are in a state of elation, self-reflection, expansiveness – all the qualities a documentarian looks for. Brown says he got teary while conducting the interviews.

But the process of turning that footage into a film involves stepping back from the initial encounters. For Brown, what makes a successful documentary is being able to retain a grasp on the emotions that brought those tears.

“It’s really important to remember those moments, because the third, eighth, 50th time you watch it, it doesn’t have that same impact,” he said. “So you might be in the editing and saying, ‘I’m not feeling what I felt the first time.’ But you have to remember that first reaction, because that’s what the audience’s reaction is going to be. You’re left wondering: Is the magic still there? Then you go to the premiere, and that magic still happens.”

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