Four Mountainfilm Filmmakers Share How They Found Their Stories

Ian McCluskey, is joined by Paul and Kate Kuthe in a search for three French kayakers who had traveled here in 1938. The three spend a month paddling the Green and Colorado Rivers filming their expedition and their search for clues to the lost story, and to have a similar experience in the wilderness of the American West; Photograph by Ian McCluskey
Ian McCluskey, is joined by Paul and Kate Kuthe in a search for three French kayakers who had traveled here in 1938. The three spend a month paddling the Green and Colorado Rivers filming their expedition and their search for clues to the lost story, and to have a similar experience in the wilderness of the American West; Photograph by Ian McCluskey

Started in 1979, Mountainfilm in Telluride, Colorado, is one of longest-running film festivals in the U.S. But, this weekend extravaganza, which happens May 22-25 this year, is much more than just a place to see groundbreaking films. It’s an inspiring, invigorating event where filmmakers, artists, and agents of change from across the globe come together to brainstorm, educate, and share experiences. “Dedicated to educating, inspiring and motivating audiences about issues that matter, cultures worth exploring, environments worth preserving, adventures worth pursuing and conversations worth sustaining,” Mountainfilm provides the chance to connect with an intense and inspiring community as you catch provocative environmental features, heart-thumping climbing adventures, thoughtful cultural portraits and stories that highlight the indomitable human spirit. As usual, this year’s line-up is impressive and features some films you’ve probably heard of including Meru, Valley Uprising, Jeff Lowe’s Metanoia, Restrepo, Drawn, and  Leave It As It Is. (See the full lineup of films.)

Several films will premiere at the festival, too. We caught up with the directors of four films being screened for the very first time—Les Voyageurs Sans Trace, The Rider and the Wolf, Rinpoche Speaks, and Knee Deep—to learn how they found their stories.

Les Voyageurs Sans Trace, Ian McCluskey

“Les Voyageurs Sans Trace” Teaser Trailer from FrenchKayakFilm on Vimeo.

Give us a short film description in your own words.
Ian McCluskey: Three friends set off from Paris, travel across the U.S. to a remote riverbank in Wyoming. The year is 1938. They have a daring, even fool-hardy plan: be the first to take kayaks down the mighty Green and Colorado Rivers. The kayaks are fragile, just wood and canvas. One of the party is a woman, age 21. She is on her honeymoon, and she’ll be the first to paddle her own boat down these rivers that John Wesley Powell had made famous, but narrowly survived himself. No one has done a trip like this before. They have no idea what awaits them down river. They’ll record their journey with color film—before the first Hollywood color movie.

Seventy-five years later, three friends set off from the same Wyoming river bank. Their plan: travel nearly 1,000 river miles to retrace the journey of the French trio, searching for clues, and piecing together the lost story. Two are a couple, and the third is a filmmaker and absolute beginning kayaker. He has no idea what awaits him on the river, or what he’ll uncover in the search for the three adventurers who had called themselves, “The Voyagers Without Trace.”

How did the idea come about?

In a small park in the remote southwest corner of Wyoming, I chanced upon a curious historic marker. It offered a hint at an incredible tale of adventure. It described three friends, kayaks, beer, cameras … and had a photo of two handsome men, and a fetching blonde. They didn’t seem like the rugged explorers and grizzly mountain men that you read about on most historic markers—but rather three dashing young outdoor enthusiasts who could have been my friends.

Curious to learn more, I start to research the story. Eventually, I come across an obscure library reference to the University of Utah Special Collections. I called and described the few facts I’d read on the sign….“Oh, you mean the sign on Expedition Island,” said the man on the phone. “I put that sign there.” My call started a quest to uncover all I could about the three mysterious French adventurers.

Why did this story appeal to you?
Do you know those stories where a kid finds a treasure map in an attic, or a lost letter in a dusty book? When I was growing up, my dad read me tales of great adventure. I always dreamed one day I’d find a mysterious clue that set me on an adventure of my own.

What is your hope for this film? What do you hope people walk away with?
The three French kayakers—Bernard, Genevieve, and Antoine—embody the spirit of adventure. They were not professionals, but ordinary people who did something extraordinary. In them, I found values that resonate deeply in the life that I want to live: the ability to face fear, to be open to the kindness of strangers, and to find adventure around every corner. I hope people walk away from this film humming the theme song, thinking about their next adventure, and the trace that they will leave in their lives.

What are some of the challenges you encountered in the making of this film?
This is a film about three French kayakers and I am not French, nor a kayaker. I had to learn to kayak in order to tell this story. After a crash course over a few summer weekends, I pushed off in Wyoming with the hope of taking out a month later in Arizona. Between those two points are five deep, wilderness canyons, and more than a hundred rapids twice beyond my ability…Everything about this film has been more complex than any other project I have undertaken in my 15-years as a professional documentary filmmaker.

Why did you decide to premiere at Mountainfilm?

This film has a special relationship with Mountainfilm. It has been made by several Mountainfilm alum and received support from the Commitment grant in 2012.

In 2011, I screened a short film at Mountainfilm and the hugely enthusiastic response encouraged me to think about rivers, friendship, and shared adventures. I approached my good friend and colleague John Waller (Treeverse, Mending the Line) about the lost story of the French trio. He immediately agreed to help and we began to assemble a team of intrepid filmmakers. All along, we knew this was a film perfect for Mountainfilm, not just in its subject matter, but in its celebration of the “indomitable spirit.”

What’s the next big adventure or film project on the horizon for you?
Every summer, I head to the Redwoods with high school students, mentoring them to make documentaries related to the natural world. It means a great deal for me to be able to pass on my passion for documentary storytelling and nature, to make that bridge between art and science, exploration and education, and to nurture the upcoming generation.

Any parting thoughts?
The film is currently “in-progress” and we are propelling ourselves toward a semblance of completion for Mountainfilm. For the past two weeks, our days have started bright and early, and usually wrapped at 4 a.m. … We’re definitely keeping the same hard, driven hours in the edit room as we did when shooting on the river. It’s utterly exhausting, but in that feel-like-you-earned-it way. In order to complete the film, we are currently raising funds on Kickstarter and are just over half-way to reaching our goal (find out more)!

Learn more: http://www.frenchkayakfilm.com/

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The Rider and the Wolf, Nathan Ward

The Rider & The Wolf – Trailer 2 from Grit & Thistle Film Company on Vimeo.

Give us a short film description in your own words.
Nathan Ward: The Rider and The Wolf is the story of Mike Rust, the Hall of Fame mountain biker who disappeared without a trace in Colorado in 2009. Mike was one of the pioneers of mountain biking, building and customizing bikes in Colorado Springs, Crested Butte, and Salida in the 70s/80s/90s. He partnered with flat track motorcycle champion Don McClung and they made what may have been the most innovative mountain bike of the time, the “Shorty.” In 2009, Mike came home to find out his house had been broken into, and it’s thought he tracked the intruders down at dark in a remote area. He’s never been seen or heard from again.

How did the idea come about?
I knew Mike and Don growing up in Colorado. At the time, mountain towns weren’t hip and cool like they were today, but homes to miners, railroaders, poor people. Mountain biking didn’t exist yet and these two brought it to my hometown. When I heard that Mike had disappeared, I thought someone would step forward and tell the story, but no one did. Finally, we jumped in with a very small team and started making the film with his brothers and friends.

Why did this story appeal to you?
Mike’s story appealed to me on multiple levels. In the mountain bike sense, I always thought it silly when people said that mountain biking started in one particular area or another. To me, it has evolved since the day the first bicycle rolled out on the dirt streets and trails of America, which was a long time ago. Growing up, I spent the summers in a mountain cabin near Crested Butte, and it was a wild place with wild people. Later in life I learned that Mike Rust helped create the early mountain bike scene there, so for me I was motivated by telling a story about the sport and state that I cherish.

I also didn’t think Mike’s story should just fade away. I know a lot of people associated with Mike and his friends and family certainly want to know what happened to Mike the Bike.

What is your hope for this film? What do you hope people walk away with?
For the most part, I hope a lot of people watch the film and like it. I feel like it’s a celebration of biking, the mountains, individuality and having the courage to follow your own path. I want people to walk away inspired a bit by Mike’s spirit and hope he helps them step out and chase whatever crazy dreams they possess. There are a lot of people involved in this film and I know some of them have other hopes for it. His brothers and sister certainly want to get the story of Mike’s disappearance out there again, keep people talking about it, and hopefully in the end find out what happened to their brother.

What are some of the challenges you encountered in the making of this film?
We faced some unique challenges. There isn’t a lot of archival material about the biking that happened in little mining towns in the 70s and we searched high and low for material. A lot of the people who were in that scene are dead from hard living. Their photo collections had been thrown away or were stored in some shed in a second cousin’s second home in Florida. It took us months to find enough material.

Then there was the challenge of making what is, in part, a film about a murder where we live. We filmed in remote rural areas with no support, in sight of suspect’s houses, searched abandoned mine shafts, and were always aware that people in the area probably knew more about what happened than they were saying. One night the brothers got a call from a local informant who promised to show them where Mike’s bones were buried. He wanted to meet out in the middle of nowhere and collect the reward money. Some of Mike’s family and their friends headed down armed to the teeth. It made me think a lot about where one draws the line as a filmmaker. Do you want to tell the story or become part of the story? I actually chose to step out of the shoot that day, but some of our team continued down and covered it. Nothing came of it, but everyone was certainly on edge.

Why did you want to premiere at Mountainfilm?
Telluride Mountainfilm has inspired me since the first festival I attended years ago. As a long-time magazine writer, I was always pitching stories about the festival so I could get a pass and meet the filmmakers. Every year I left Telluride thinking “I have to make a film!” Film just seemed so much more powerful than the static stories/still photos I was producing at the time. In time I became a filmmaker, and for me Mountainfilm is still the best mountain film festival in the country, so it’s an honor for me to premiere The Rider and The Wolf there.

What’s the next big adventure or film project on the horizon for you?
I’m working on an adventure film about Southeast Colorado where my family homesteaded and were subsequently blown off the land by the Dust Bowl winds. We’re also continuing to promote the education of women and girls through Buddhism in the Himalaya, working on a related social project in Mustang to help a school effected by the recent earthquake in Nepal, supporting the great work being done by Veteran’s Expeditions in Colorado, highlighting water issues in the American West and more. A lot of the films we make are for nonprofit organizations or humanitarian/environmental causes, so we stay busy on a lot of projects trying to keep our heads above water. We are always looking for great new story ideas and partners, so please pitch us!

A: Parting thoughts?
Documentary filmmaking really takes a village of people all interested in making your film happen. I’d like to thank the friends and family of Mike Rust, Oskar Blues Brewery, Telluride Mountainfilm Commitment Grants committee, Rocky Mountain High Wheels, Mountain Bike Hall of Fame and all the other people who have worked hard to make The Rider and The Wolf a reality.

Learn more: http://www.gritandthistle.com/films/the-rider-the-wolf/
If you know anything about Mike’s disappearance, submit an anonymous tip at: http://www.missingmikerust.com/

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Rinpoche Speaks, Freddie Wilkinson & Renan Ozturk

Photograph by Renan Ozturk
Ngawang Tenzin Norbu; Portrait by Renan Ozturk

Give us a short film description in your own words.
Freddie Wilkinson: Rinpoche Speaks is a short film narrated by the Ngawang Tenzin Norbu, who is the abbot of Tengboche Monestary and spiritual leader of the Sherpa people. The man has seen remarkable changes in his life. He was born in 1935, the year after a devastating earthquake struck Nepal, killing the founder of the monastery. Lamas came to believe that Ngawang Tenzin was the reincarnation of the original Rinpoche and sent him to Tibet to study Buddhism. He didn’t see a foreigner until he was 15 years old, when Nepal opened its borders and the first mountaineering expeditions arrived.

How did the idea come about?
For all the hype and discussion surrounding Mount Everest these days, many discussions leave out the voice of those people who live directly under the mountain. There are many reasons for this, one being that Sherpa are often financially motivated to work for mountaineering expeditions and prefer to keep their true feelings to themselves. Our friend Ben Ayers suggested he would be an interesting guy to talk to.

Why did this story appeal to you?
Renan and I are longtime visitors to Nepal and enjoy stories about mountains that come from unusual perspectives.

What is your hope for this film? What do you hope people walk away with?
I hope it makes people think outside the normal metaphors and structures Westerners normally apply to mountains and mountaineering.

What are some challenges you encountered in the making of this film?
Well, things took a big turn two months after we spoke to the Rinpoche, when a 7.9-magnititude earthquake struck the mountains of Nepal, killing at least 7,000 people. In the interview, the Rinpoche had mentioned that storms and earthquakes are causing destruction all over the world and drew a spiritual connection between the greed that is sometimes evident on Everest and damage that is being done to the environment.

Why did you want to premiere at Mountainfilm?
Since the earthquake, the project is evolving and we’re still not sure where it will go, so I can’t promise that what we show at Mountainfilm is a finished work, but the festival pulls together a truly unique group of people, not just from the climbing / adventure / outdoors community, but from many other walks of life who are engaged with the world in different and profound ways.

What’s the next big adventure or film project on the horizon for you?
Finishing The Sanctity of Space, our tribute to the spirit of exploration amid the mountains of Alaska.

Parting thoughts?
We can’t say stop, so we must reduce.
Learn more: https://dzi.org/
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Knee Deep, Aly Nicklas & Ali Geiser

Knee Deep // Official Trailer from Just Rite Media on Vimeo.

Give us a short film description in your own words.
Aly Nicklas: Knee Deep is about grassroots disaster response following the catastrophic flooding in Colorado last year. What started out as a couple of our friends connecting over social media trying to figure out what to do about the destruction turned into a full-scale relief effort pretty much overnight. They called themselves the Mudslingers.

How did the idea come about?
While I was helping to run the Mudslingers, I started documenting what was happening. At the time I didn’t have a real plan of doing anything with the footage. As things started to wind down it became clear that people—a lot of people—were interested in the group. How it had started, the role social media played in our formation and operation, the advantages we’d had given their unorthodox nature, the impact we’d had . . .

Why did this story appeal to you?
Ali Geiser: The event had a powerful effect on Aly N. She came out of the flood with an entirely new perspective on the positive impact she could have in this world . . . really, the realization that she could have an impact. She helped to start the Mudslingers not knowing what she was doing or how she was going to do it . . . no real volunteering experience, no experience running any kind of organization, and in a week all that changed, and it changed because she just kinda showed up and started doing. And when the need for first-responders dried up and the days of digging came to an end, not only was she stronger for it, but her whole community was, everyone who’d stood up and helped dig each other out of this. She came out thinking, “If I can do this, anybody can. And they should know that, and be ready to take action, because there will be another flood, there will be fires and earthquakes, and we can’t just rely on the government or the Red Cross to clean up afterwards. They do their part, but there is a role for citizens too. The government isn’t going to come into your neighbor’s house and rip out his muddy carpet. This is the way a community should work. It should take care of its own.”

What is your hope for this film? What do you hope people walk away with?
We want people to see that you don’t need to know how to do something in order to start doing it. This is kind of big picture, but we want them—next time they’re confronted with a massive, messy problem, to just get out there and sink their hands in and start doing. The key is to just show up. Whatever it is. You will inevitably be surprised by where this little/huge move will take you.

What are some of challenges you encountered in the making of this film?
Aly N. really didn’t want to be in the film. When we started scripting it out, I really had to kind of gently, slowly warm her up to it. Being a part of the Mudslingers had such an impact on her, and she played a big role in their efforts . . . I knew the story wouldn’t be as powerful without her as a main character, and I think she kind of knew that too, but it took a long time, as well as some sweat and tears, to coax her into that role.

Why did you want to premiere at Mountainfilm?
Mountainfilm is magical. You drive into Telluride Memorial Day weekend and it’s like –whooo, wormhole–I’m in some sort of utopia, there are these mountains, and there’s Baked in Telluride, and I’m surrounded by some of the most amazing people on earth, watching some of the best films I’m going to see all year, and . . . well, I guess there is nowhere else we’d rather have it premiere. Colorado is our home, these are our people, and this festival has been a huge source of inspiration for us since we started going five years ago. It’s great to be able to contribute to the magic.

What’s the next big adventure or film project on the horizon for you?
We’re currently working on a trip that involves biking the length of Cuba. There’s change on the way for that unique, isolated little island. We want to explore the land and the culture, looking in particular at the systems they’ve developed being a relatively self-sustaining nation. We’d also like to do some dancing, climb some limestone, and maybe learn how to roll cigars too . . . being on bikes and carrying all our gear will allow us to really get intimate with the place and its people. Authentic adventure for positive social exchange. That’s what we’ve got cooking.

Learn more: http://www.kneedeepfilm.com/

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