Nine incredible short documentaries were shown in the historic venue to a packed house who were delighted by mountaineering, skiing, ultra-marathons, incredible mountain biking pensioners and more. We gasped, held our breath and, at times, laughed as the disparate but all engaging scenarios played out on screen.
All this and a well-furninshed prize draw in the intervals. One audience member a few seats away from mine won a fine new pair of running shoes, another a handy caravan storage rack - it transpired she didn't own a caravan, but still seemed pleased.
“The Process” was the first film of the evening and, while it had its share of adrenaline-inducing action, more interesting was the examination of what it means to fail and what drives people like British climber Tom Randall to tackle extreme challenges in the first place. The film tracks Randall’s attempt to complete the self-imposed task of the Lakes Classic Rock Challenge and a Bob Graham link-up in 24 hours - that's 15 perilous rock climbs and a 66 mile run and ascent. As Randall pushes himself to and very nearly beyond his limits, against the stunning scenery of the Lake District - the results are profound and jaw-dropping in equal measure.
Another standout entry was Free to Run - the longest film in the programme and among the most thought-provoking. We follow the story of Mountain runner and UN human rights attorney Stephanie Case who is running the titular “Free to Run” NGO to help women in Afghanistan - and the toughest “ultra-trail” race of her life.
Set in Afghanistan during 2021 when the Taliban were strengthening their grip on the country and Stephanie struggles to help the women she works with to evacuate, the act of running serves as a transgressive and liberating way for all involved to find a sense of freedom during a terrifying and uncertain time.
Some of the films are more lighthearted - Alta and Colours of Mexico are beautiful triumphs of sporting cinematography - but no less entertaining. The evening’s “and finally” palate-cleanser was Do a Wheelie, a quirky celebration of cycling which sees Danny MacAskill and friends do exactly that in a life-affirming montage. Also of note is the character-study North Shore Betty, in which wind-surfer turned mountain biker Betty Birrel - turned at the age of 45, that is - inspires future generations to be active in her local area and through the screen.
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Personally, I found Lapporten Skyline to be the most affecting spectacle on the roster. The film tracks the shared ambition of a group of “highliners” attempting to set a world record by walking across a cable suspended 600 metres above the ground between two Swedish Mountains, two kilometres apart. The mind-boggling challenge is pure adventure, with the group playfully revelling in the madness of what they are doing but also coming up against moments of stomach-churning danger.
One of the aerial walkers remarks that he usually spends around two minutes highlining, while the world-record hopeful in this case faces two hours suspended - and at times truly alone and out of sight of his companions for the middle portion of the walk. As an audience member, it is difficult to comprehend what it must be like to be both so high up and weighed down by the chance of putting a foot wrong, but the film is a nail-biting and immersive account of the journey.
I left the theatre full of admiration and restlessness to have an adventure of my own - all thanks to the world-class storytelling which Banff showcases so deftly. I would recommend that anyone looking to broaden and chase their horizons seek out the nearest BANFF screening by visiting the festival’s website.