A Big Festival Born in a Small Town

By Beacon Staff

The small Alberta town of Banff, where the population is only slightly higher than the elevation, may seem an unlikely candidate to spawn the largest mountain film festival in North America. But if you look closer, at its illustrious Banff Centre of arts and culture, at its stunning mountainous surroundings, perhaps it all makes sense.

From Oct. 31 to Nov. 8, more than 10,000 moviegoers crowded into theaters throughout Banff, a town of just over 8,000 in Alberta, for the famed Banff Mountain Film Festival. From 277 total entries, 62 films were chosen for the festival. Screenings included outdoor adventure films and documentaries serving as in-depth cultural examinations. Winners in various categories were named.

The event is held by the Banff Centre, an institution that film festival director Shannon O’Donaghue describes as a “leading center for professional development for artists” in Canada. Roughly 5,000 artists from across the world train at the center annually, in fields such as mountain culture, aboriginal arts, drama, opera, dance and literary arts, among others. The center is geared toward “mid-career artists,” O’Donaghue said, differing from traditional university art schools.

“We have a lot of residencies and workshops,” O’Donaghue said. “It’s a really special place, actually. There’s nothing like this in another small town in Canada.”

Just days after the festival ended, two vans – equipped with top-of-the-line digital projectors – embarked on a mission to show 25 selected films across Canada and the United States. The films will also be taken to countries across the globe as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, which will hold more than 500 screenings in 30 countries, O’Donaghue said.

Outside of Canada, the first stop for the tour is Montana. On Nov. 13, films will be shown in Great Falls, followed by back-to-back screenings in Kalispell at Flathead High School on Nov. 17 and 18 at 7 p.m. As in past years, the Flathead Nordic Ski Patrol is organizing the Kalispell event as a fundraiser for the nonprofit.

Tickets are $12 and available in Kalispell at Rocky Mountain Outfitter and Sportsman Ski Haus, and in Whitefish at Sportsman Ski Haus, Runner Up Sport and the White Room. Films this year will include documentaries about paddling the crocodile-infested White Nile River of Uganda, a first descent in Madagascar and scaling the 6,000-meter Trango Pulpit in Pakistan.

The Banff Centre was founded in 1933 by the University of Alberta with a grant from the United States-based Carnegie Foundation. It began with a single course in drama. After more arts programs were added, it became the Banff School of Fine Arts in 1935. Its arts programs continued to grow, while conferences and management programs were introduced in the 1950s.

By the 1970s, it had greatly expanded its role as a leader of experimentation and innovation in the arts. It was re-named the Banff Centre for Continuing Education, or just the Banff Centre for short. In 1978, the Alberta government gave the institution full autonomy as a non-degree granting educational institution under the governance of an appointed board.

It was during this period of experimenting in the 1970s that the Banff Mountain Film Festival was born. Like many experiments, it started as a small idea, concocted by a couple of instructors in the Banff Centre for Management who liked mountaineering. Using the prestigious Trento Festival of Mountaineering and Exploration Films in Italy as an inspiration, John Amatt, Chic Scott and Evelyn Moorehouse set out to hold a small festival of their own.

On Oct. 31, 1976, the first Banff Festival of Mountaineering Films was held. The organizers planned to use the 250-seat Margaret Greenham Theatre for the one-day event. But shortly before the screenings were to begin, they were faced with a crowd nearly double that size. So at the last minute, they moved the festival to the Eric Harvie Theatre and the event was huge success for the little town.

The festival took on an environmental tone, which is still evident today.

“It was kind of ahead of its time,” O’Donaghue said.

In 1977, the event grew and became a competition, with judges selecting winners from 19 films. From there, the festival continued to grow. Then in the late 1980s, O’Donaghue said organizers started the tour, taking a number of films selected from the festival to locations across North America and overseas.

Today, in somewhat of a role reversal, the tour is the driving force behind the festival, O’Donaghue said, largely because it is a major incentive to attract quality filmmakers. O’Donaghue said filmmakers don’t get paid for the festival, but they do for the tour. This helps ensure that quality film professionals keep coming back to the festival.

“It may be the only check they receive for their film to be played,” O’Donaghue said of the tour money. “The North American tour is the reason we can do what we do. It’s why filmmakers have the motivation to do what they do.”

Of the 62 films selected for this year’s festival, 11 were made by filmmakers who trained at the Banff Centre, O’Donaghue said. Despite widespread penny pinching in the current economy, O’Donaghue expects attendance to once again be strong for the tour.

“I think there’s that certain magic when the lights go out in a theater and the film comes up on the screen – people want that,” O’Donaghue said. “They might not be going on vacation to Hawaii, but they’re going to the Banff Film Festival tour.”

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