A documentary directed by Sasha Snow; Asiemut, a documentary directed by Olivier Higgins and Mélanie Carrier. Part of the Best of the 31st Annual Banff Mountain Film Festival, which screens on Tuesday, February 20, and Wednesday, February 21, at UCSB’s Campbell Hall.
Reviewed by Matt Kettmann
Mountainous wilderness has always fascinated humankind, a species whose innate curiosity makes even the most remote regions ripe for exploration. The Banff Mountain Film Festival was started in 1976 as a testament to both that drive and the inhabitable landscapes themselves, and we’ve been lucky to enjoy a “Best Of” rundown every year at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. This year’s offerings — six of which show next Tuesday, and seven more on Wednesday — are strong as usual, ranging from extreme sport trickery and orgiastic climbing footage to natural wonders such as the merganser hen and Siberian tiger.
Considering the latter, the fest’s feature-length highlight would certainly be the hour-long Conflict Tiger, a stirring, suspenseful doc about Russia’s far eastern wilderness and the growing confrontations between humans and the massive, predatory feline. Since the fall of communism, those living outside Russia’s rich cities have had to return to traditional hunting as a way to survive and make extra cash. The Siberian tiger — whose populations have been struggling in the overdeveloped Asian countryside — finds itself hunting for the same prey in the same forests. Conflicts, then, are growing. By blending endearing portraits of individuals, insightful interviews with experts, and thrilling reenactments, this doc traces a particular incident in which professional hunter Yuri Trush, of the Conflict Tiger Team, must search out a tiger that’s on a vengeful killing spree. This film, which is part of the Wednesday grouping, is wilderness filmmaking at its very best.
Tuesday’s feature-length film is Asiemut, an hour-long, did-it-themselves chronicle of one French-speaking couple’s 8,000-kilometer bicycle trek from Ulan Bator, Mongolia, to Calcutta, India. The documentary mainly focuses on the front end of the journey, through the stunning steppes of Mongolia, the fascinating Silk Road culture clash of Xinjiang in western China, and the mountainous terrain of Tibet. Using the ascent of Tibet’s 5,200-meter-high Nyalam Tonga La Pass as the film’s central narration point, the lovey-dovey couple’s physical, mental, and emotional limits are tested, resulting in philosophical ponderings about being “between the crisis of abundance and the crisis of famine” and learning that “finding one’s place isn’t always easy, but we always find our place.” Take their internal discoveries or leave them, but know the footage of these stark landscapes is alone worth watching. It’s real-life adventure, an inspiration for the rest of us to do the same. And after all, that’s the point of Banff.