Banff on the Big Screen

Following its debut in Alberta, Canada, famed mountain film fest embarks on world tour — with a Nov. 12-13 stop in the Flathead Valley

By Tristan Scott
Valentine Fabre at dawn on the South Ridge of the Dent Blanche. Matterhorn in the background, Switzerland. Photo by Ben Tibbitts

On Halloween night in 1976, a suite of high-octane films about mountaineering and exploration debuted in Banff, Alberta, where the inaugural Banff Festival of Mountaineering Films launched an experiment that has since mushroomed into a storied success and a tradition spanning more than four decades.

Last week, from Oct. 26 to Nov. 3, more than 10,000 moviegoers crowded into theaters throughout Banff, a town of just under 9,000 people, to attend the now-famed Banff Mountain Film Festival. From 442 total entries, 62 films were chosen for the festival, which is organized by the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Screenings included outdoor adventure films and documentaries serving as in-depth cultural examinations about the environment, mountain ethics and the human experience. Winners in various categories were announced and awarded.

Now, the festival hits the road for a world tour guaranteed to entice mountaineers and armchair adventurers alike.

As it continues to evolve, the Banff Mountain Film Festival serves to influence, inspire and intellectualize all corners of the mountaineering universe, and its annual world tour includes far-flung locales across the globe, including the Flathead Valley.

The event is held by the Banff Centre, an institution that film festival director Joanna Croston 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.

Since its debut, the Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival has become the largest and one of the most prestigious mountain festivals in the world.

With stops planned in about 550 communities and more than 40 countries across the globe, this year’s tour features a collection of the most inspiring action, environmental and adventure films from the festival. Traveling to exotic landscapes and remote cultures, and bringing audiences up close and personal with adrenaline-packed action sports, organizers said the 2019/2020 World Tour is an exhilarating and provocative exploration of the mountain world.

Outside of Canada, the first stop for the tour is Montana. On Nov. 12 and 13, films will be shown as back-to-back screenings in Kalispell at Flathead High School beginning 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 available in Kalispell at Rocky Mountain Outfitter and Sportsman & Ski Haus, and in Whitefish at Sportsman & Ski Haus and Great Northern Cycle and Ski.

The Flathead Valley has become a prominent annual stop for the Banff Mountain Film Festival, drawing sold-out crowds in a region that identifies strongly with the tone and spirit of mountaineering that the original festival set.

The festival’s longevity, however, would not have been possible without the Banff Centre.

Founded in 1933 by the University of Alberta with a grant from the United States-based Carnegie Foundation, the Banff Centre began inauspiciously 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. The event was huge success for the little town.

The festival took on an environmental tone, seeking to furnish protections on the open spaces that accommodate the mountain sports featured in the films, a current that still runs strong today.

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, organizers launched 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, Croston said, largely because it is a major incentive to attract quality filmmakers to a broad platform.

For additional information, visit banffcentre.ca.