Banff Returns to the Big Screen

After hosting virtual presentations in 2020 and 2021, the iconic mountain film fest returns with a live tour, including a Dec. 6-7 stop at FVCC’s new Wachholz College Center

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 day-long arrangement of high-octane adventure films centered on mountaineering and outdoor exploration debuted in Banff, Alberta, launching an oddball experiment that has since ballooned into a global tradition spanning more than four and a half decades.

Despite its humble origins, the Banff Mountain Film Festival is now a jet-setting phenomenon that, having been waylaid for the past two years due to the coronavirus, is once again setting sails for far-flung corners of the globe, including the Flathead Valley.

After running a virtual event in 2020 and a hybrid festival in 2021, festival organizers were determined that the 2022/23 iteration return to its traditional live roots. To that end, they’ve already succeeded as the 47th edition of what’s now called the Banff Centre Mountain Film Festival World Tour hit the road last month, enticing mountaineers and armchair adventurers alike.

“It is hard to replicate community and seeing films with your friends,” festival director Joanna Croston said. “That is the real part of the festival we are looking forward to, getting everyone together again.”

During the week of Oct. 29 to Nov. 6, more than 10,000 moviegoers set about getting together again in theaters throughout Banff, a town of about 8,000 people that is home to the now-famed Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival. From more than 400 total film entries, 84 finalists were chosen for the festival, which is organized by the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and includes 40 live events and 25 online programs. 

The event is held by the Banff Centre, an institution that Croston describes as a “leading center for professional development for artists” in Canada. 

Outside of Canada, the first stop on the tour is Montana. On Tuesday, Dec. 6 and Wednesday, Dec. 7, films will be shown as back-to-back screenings in Kalispell at the Flathead Valley Community College’s new Wachholz College Center beginning at 7 p.m. As in past years, the Flathead Nordic Backcountry Patrol (FNBP) is organizing the Kalispell event as a fundraiser for the nonprofit. FNBP train and prepare to respond to any type of winter backcountry emergency, maintaining national certification through the National Ski Patrol while partnering with the Flathead National Forest and Flathead Avalanche Center to promote avalanche education and awareness in the Flathead Valley. Its members also act as an integral part of the Montana Search and Rescue community by joining local organizations to respond to emergencies in and around the Flathead Valley. Members are experienced in a wide variety of back-country specialties: avalanche rescue and education, mountain travel and education, outdoor emergency care and transport. 

Tickets are available at wachholzcollegecenter.org.

The Flathead Valley has long been 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.