Nearly 75 per cent of British Columbia is mountainous, and most Vancouverites have some kind of relationship with the sky-high hills in our backyard. We ski, we hike, we marvel — we’re disoriented when the North Shore Mountains are obscured by fog or smoke.
But for some people, the mountains aren’t just some weekend retreat or picture-perfect backdrop. Alone in the vastness of B.C.’s mountain ranges, breathing thin air and subsisting on rehydrated rations — this is where these diehards truly come alive.
Vancouver filmmaker Grant Baldwin provides an unfettered look into the lives of a handful of B.C. mountaineers in This Mountain Life. The documentary screens Nov.2 to 12 at Vancity Theatre after playing to sold-out crowds at the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival.
This Mountain Life introduces audiences to Tania and Martina Halik, a mother and daughter team who embark on a 2,300-km trek through the Coast Mountain Range from Squamish to Skagway, Alaska; Janina and Ian, who share a horrifying avalanche experience; Simon, an artist who “paints” with his skis; Mary and Bernhard, who have lived off the grid for more than 50 years; and Sisters Marie and Claire, who contemplate God in the Queen of Peace Monastery in the Garibaldi Highlands.
Director Baldwin seems to gravitate to filmmaking that places him in extreme situations. His previous feature-length documentary, Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, detailed how he and his wife Jenny Rustemeyer lived off discarded food for six months. The film won the Audience Must See Award at VIFF 2014 and drew the attention of major broadcasters who wanted him to follow it up with something similar.
But Baldwin didn’t want to experiment on himself again for cinema’s sake, and he didn’t want to be on camera. “I believed if we did a follow-up to Just Eat It with similar people, people would see right through it as being a cash grab,” says Baldwin. “I basically abandoned all of these opportunities to do something that I really believed was quality.”
And so Baldwin turned to the mountains. He’d spent much of his career filming professional skiers, and he recalled being intrigued by “these interesting people in the mountains who were never featured in those stories, who don’t get to be the ones selling skis or jackets,” says Baldwin. “They’re usually just the ones in the background, but they’re literally living the mountain life.”
Although there’s plenty to differentiate the real-life mountaineers who populate This Mountain Life, Baldwin noted a thread that ran between them. “You see it particularly in Tania, the mom from the ski tour trip, that she’s really uncomfortable in the city around a lot of people,” says Baldwin. “They all really seem to feel that [the mountains are] where they shine and where the confidence comes out for them.”
Baldwin is no stranger to filmmaking-related challenges — he regularly dumpster-dove for Just Eat It. But This Mountain Life came with its own special set of challenges — some that put life and limb at risk.
“The challenge of making this one was how do you do a vérité documentary, and make it look good, but also be with these people in these places that are really challenging to shoot in?” he says.
Baldwin addressed this challenge by limiting his crew to two people. “It had to be two, because you had to be able to move through the terrain, and you couldn’t do it with more people,” says Baldwin. “We were very lucky to get the footage we wanted, but often it was really hard to get back out.”
On one occasion, after getting the footage they needed, Baldwin and his colleague were stranded on a glacier for two days. “The weather came in and we couldn’t get off the glacier and we were low on fuel from making water, and it was a bit scary and I was like, ‘Is this really worth it?’ Most mountaineers are used to this stuff. I didn’t prepare enough. We brought so much camera gear that we hadn’t brought a bunch of extra food or water.”
But Baldwin learned how to deal with this kind of danger from his film’s subjects. “I’m so inspired by the idea of when you think you’re at your limit, you’re not,” says Baldwin, who is currently shooting a four-part series for the Knowledge Network about North Shore Rescue. “I felt like my threshold was lower, but I feel like I met that, and got past that sometimes, making this, and I think that’s what’s going to stick with me.
The Mountain Life screens Nov. 2 to 12 at Vancity Theatre. Tickets at viff.org.