This Mountain Life opens with a shot of Simon Beck standing on the face of a silent, snowy mountain. Beck walks slowly, methodically, across the snow, explaining that he never uses GPS when traversing mountains—only his sense of direction and orienteering skills. It’s not immediately clear what Beck is doing or why. “I think my life has largely been wasted trying to do the wrong thing, trying to get good at the wrong things,” Beck says. As the camera zooms out, the viewer can see that every step Beck takes, every impression made by his trekking poles, creates one small piece in a larger design: the outline of a huge geometric snowflake in the otherwise pristine snow. Beck is a snow artist. “At an age where most people are thinking of retiring,” he explains, “I feel I’m just starting.”
Beck is just one of the many subjects of This Mountain Life, one of the many well-crafted films screening at this year’s Thin Line Fest. The doc follows men and women from all walks of life: a mother and daughter who plan to walk from Vancouver to Alaska, a Métis mountain guide, a group of friends who love to ski and snowboard, an off-the-grid artist and his wife, and even a cloister of nuns who live in a monastery in a remote mountain pass. Each subject has a deep felt connection to the beauty and simplicity of mountain life in British Columbia, Canada, despite that life’s grave risks and harsh climate.
This Mountain Life is director Grant Baldwin’s third feature documentary. His previous works, The Clean Bin Project and Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story, focused on environmental and food waste, and the difficulty in eliminating that waste on a personal level. Though the film does not specifically address environmental issues, This Mountain Life feels like a natural next step in the evolution of Baldwin’s portfolio. There is an underlying thread connecting each of the film’s subjects: a desire to “get back to nature,” or at least to get away from the noise and chaos of city life.
Risk and reward are the other threads connecting this doc’s interviewees. Life in a sub-arctic climate is not easy, and certainly not always safe. Janina Kuzma, an Olympic athlete, and Ian Bezubiak, a backcountry skier, nearly lost their friend Todd Weselake to an avalanche on a completely routine ski day. Bernhard Thor, an elderly painter and sculptor, lives a completely off-the-grid, self-sufficient life in the Cascade Mountains with his wife Mary, and they’re quick to acknowledge that as they age, they know that risks to their health and survival increase exponentially. “The older we get, the more…perhaps…questionable it is,” Mary says. Tania and Martina Halik, the mother-daughter duo making the trek from Vancouver to southern Alaska, spend their days crossing dangerous rivers, pitching tents in frigid arctic blizzards, heating frozen water to drink, and searching—often unsuccessfully—for food drops.
As a civilian, it’s impossible not to ask why? For all of the danger, physical exhaustion, and isolation that comes with remote mountain life, why would anyone choose it? For Métis mountain guide Barry Blanchard, it’s a chance to have the tribe he never felt he had as an indigenous Canadian. For Sister Claire Rolf of the Queen of Peace Monastery, it’s precious silence. “Silence is really an endangered species in the world today,” she says at one point. And for Tania and Martina, it’s about finding balance. Tania, Martina’s mother, escaped from the Soviet-ruled Czech Republic to find a better life for her children, enduring many of the same trials on the way: freezing weather, cold rivers, and harsh terrain. The trek she takes with Martina reminds her of those dark times, but also of the delight that followed when she reached freedom. “Just like without ugliness there would be no beauty, without night there would be no day,” she explains. “Without suffering, there is no joy.”
This Mountain Life is gorgeously shot, with countless scenes of glaciers, mountain passes, rivers, and forests rarely seen up close. With its focus on adventure, beauty, and human connection, this film will appeal to the nature-lover and the city-dweller just the same.
This Mountain Life runs 77 minutes and will be shown Saturday, April 13 at 11 a.m. and Sunday, April 14 at 6 p.m. at Alamo Drafthouse as part of Thin Line Film Festival. To register for Thin Line Fest or to purchase a premium registration, click here.