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Film director Dave Mossop hangs in a body bag from a cable as he works on a scene for "All.I.Can." at Island Lake Lodge near Fernie, B.C. (David Mossop Photography/Eric Crosland)
Film director Dave Mossop hangs in a body bag from a cable as he works on a scene for "All.I.Can." at Island Lake Lodge near Fernie, B.C. (David Mossop Photography/Eric Crosland)

Movies

Beyond 'ski porn' to a green theme Add to ...

Like all ski movies, the new film All.I.Can. delivers images of harrowingly steep descents on mountains in remote destinations: the towering peaks of Alaska, a Chilean volcano, the Atlas range in Morocco.

It’s what fans of the flourishing niche genre lovingly, and sometimes derisively, call ski porn. Each autumn a new volley of such films arrive, to whet appetites for the coming winter. But like pornography, there is a sameness in the films. Attempts to graft on a plot, or themes, often come off as feeble and many times are just cast aside in favour of the real show – the jumps, tricks and ever-more-extreme skiing.

The makers of All.I.Can., Whistler, B.C.-based Sherpas Cinema, aim for more. Their last film, 2008’s The Fine Line, combined scenes of big-mountain skiing with avalanche safety education, taking on the reality of looming dangers in the mountains.

With All.I.Can., which premiered in Whistler in late September, Sherpas Cinema attempts to entwine an environmental theme with skiing. In Morocco, climbing in the Atlas Mountains, skier Chris Rubens considers the parched brown earth behind and below him. “Looking out over the barren desert,” says Rubens, “it’s pretty hard not to wonder: Is this our future?”

Sherpas Cinema deftly manages to blend its green theme and billowing white clouds of skiers ripping through fresh snow. It is an uneasy marriage, however, that places questions of global warming alongside a sport attuned to nature but extremely dependent on fossil fuels, from cars and planes to get to ski resorts or backcountry locations, to the helicopters used to shoot the spectacular footage.

The filmmakers acknowledge the seeming hypocrisy and avoid preaching, attempting to stoke awareness rather than trumpet some this-is-it answer.

“To tie together something that’s going to be entertaining from start to finish, with action sports and to weave a message, it was definitely a challenge,” said Malcolm Sangster, one of the film’s producers.

“We always wanted to do ski films with a little more behind it than skiing.”

Ski films began in the 1930s in Germany and gained momentum in the United States after the Second World War. Warren Miller, freshly discharged from the U.S. Navy, made the biggest name, delivering a film every fall that combined skiing, humour and picturesque cinematography.

Greg Stump, in the late 1980s, busted the mould with his seminal The Blizzard of Aahhh’s, a story driven by the personalities of its stars, including Glen Plake and his mohawk haircut, and the extreme environs in the mountains of Chamonix, France.

Stump, who is soon to release a history of ski films, Legends of Aahhh’s, isn’t impressed with the two decades of work that followed Blizzard. He hesitates to criticize the likes of leading producers such as Matchstick Productions and Teton Gravity Research but bemoans the lack of characters and stories.

“It’s not easy to tell a story,” said Stump. “They all say it’s not ski porn but you know it is.”

Bigger is better remains the go-to style, evidenced by this fall’s most-hyped film, The Art of Flight. It is a multimillion-dollar work by Brain Farm Digital Cinema and Red Bull Media House, and tries to push the ski-film genre to a new level with high-end film equipment – the Cineflex cameras used to make the BBC’s Planet Earth series.

But Sherpas Cinema is one of a cadre of smaller filmmakers trying something different, and it appears to be working. A review of All.I.Can. on the ESPN Action Sports website was effusive, calling the film “the best movie in skiing.” It is beginning to feel that despite the eye-popping work of Brain Farm the most interesting ski films are the ones with the fewest glamour shots.

Among them is The Edge of Never, a recent book and film by Bill Kerig that tells the story of Whistler’s Kye Petersen (one of the stars of All.I.Can.). Petersen, then just 15 years old, is taken to Chamonix by veterans like Plake to ski the mountain where his father Trevor Petersen died in 1996 in an avalanche.

Sweetgrass Productions, based in Colorado, has chosen a do-it-yourself ethos for its films. The company shoots in the backcountry and eschews helicopters. The filmmakers and skiers hike up every metre they eventually ski down. They establish a base for extended periods and produce more intimate and less frenetic films. Their latest, Solitaire, explores the hardship and rewards of skiing and life in the Andes of South America and it sold out its premiere at an 800-person theatre in Denver this month.

“It seemed people were incredibly excited for something different,” said Zac Ramras, cinematographer/producer at Sweetgrass. “Our skiing isn’t top-notch, I’ll admit, but it’s about more than the skiing.”

At Sherpas Cinema, Sangster admires films such as the Red Bull-funded The Art of Flight and doesn’t fear that big-budget extravaganzas preclude the success of more eclectic efforts. Sherpas’s The Fine Line sold more than 30,000 copies, and All.I.Can. cost $400,000 to make, a fraction of the budget of The Art of Flight. Solitaire cost $110,000. The small budgets are made possible by filmmaking gear that has become much more affordable, which buoys Sangster’s optimism for the genre.

“The films are just going to get better and better.”

The All.I.Can. tour includes screenings in Halifax on Thursday. Calgary Friday, Edmonton Oct. 27 and Vancouver Nov. 3. International dates include New York on Nov. 19 and 20. Full schedule at sherpascinema.com.

 

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