Celebration, Elevation, Reflection: 2014 WSSF delivers mountain-town culture

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A screen grab from Frode Sandbech’s winning Pro Photographer Showdown slideshow.

by Leslie Anthony

From the opening presentation in the Mountain Life Multiplicity show it was clear that the 2014 edition of Whistler’s venerable World Ski and Snowboard Festival (now in its 19th year) would again serve up a heaping helping of that which it is most famous for: mountain culture.

Led by the mesmerizing ethnobotanist and explorer Wade Davis, Multiplicity, with its diversity of experiences and perspectives, more than delivered on a theme that had kicked off with various other forms of art, sport and entertainment over the weekend.

Festival goers barely caught their breath before it was time for the festival’s most popular event—the Olympus 72-Hour Filmmaker Showdown. Despite seeming to have little to do with skiing and snowboarding, it’s the first event to sell out precisely because it has everything to do with those sports and their sometimes individualistic/sometimes collective attitudes of creativity based in observations of nature, landscape and movement through it. The filmmaker’s showdown finalists might deliver serious takes on these themes, or they can be comedies, parodies and mocumentaries, but they are always united in beaming back to the audience the nature of their lives in a mountain town.

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Part of that nature is challenge, reflected in the format of the competition: open to any and all, teams have three short days to shoot, edit and deliver a top-quality three- to five-minute film. If you want to shoot your film on multi-year sponsor Olympus’ camera gear, well, they’ll hand you everything you need, including a chance to score even more cash if you win with their product.

I say “top quality” because many of the films are on par with those see in de facto film festivals, drawing teams from as far away as the East Coast. This year’s winner was Squamish-based Darcy Turenne, the former pro mountain biker turned pro filmer whose diverse films can be found all over the web. A two-time finalist, she handily won this year with a piece that was both brilliant for its simple cinematic and story idea—a single long shot of a boring jog gone happily awry—as well as for the complexity of executing it so stylishly. That’s all I can say without giving it all away.

The following night saw the fourth incarnation of Intersection, presented by Bromley Baseboards. Here, crews have seven days to shoot, edit and produce a 5- to 7-minute ski or snowboard film—each of which must be shot within 100 km radius, contain 30 seconds of park, 30 seconds of Whistler Blackcomb in-bounds terrain, and have 75 per cent of footage shot on snow. The six teams competing lucked out with a change of rules: instead of filming the entire thing in the week prior to the event (and getting stiffed by spring weather), they were able to film over a week-long period in mid-March—when Whistler received a shit-ton of snow, making for some of the best pow footie the comp has ever seen. The Manboys, a group of Whistler friends led by filmmaker Robjn Taylor, took the $10,000 prize as well as the People’s Choice award. The obviously industrious Manboys are currently working on a web series in partnership with Transworld Snowboarding.

The pace of cultural events was relentless. Thursday night, to another sold out crowd at the Olympus Pro Photographer Showdown, freeski Godfather Mike Douglas handed Norwegian snowboard photog Frode Sandbech the winner’s pile of schwag and $10,000 in prize money. Sandbech’s show—chock full of jaw-drop images that made use of the surreality of landscape and long exposures of the heavenly firmament—was best summed by the word “ethereal.”

“Frode’s eye is one of a hawk hunting prey from a distance,” wrote Jonathan Glass on Snowboardmag.com. “He sees things normal men would never notice.” A particularly popular theme were his shots of people seeming to step off a precipice onto the rising orb of a full moon. Sometimes the gigantic projection systems used at such events, while quite sophisticated, are hard to colour-calibrate, so you’ll be happy to know that watching the show on a computer screen will be much more beautiful and enjoyable.

So what does all this add up to? Something pretty important, I think: by celebrating, elevating and reflecting mountain culture back to its participants with cutting-edge multi-media events, the WSSF has, for 19 years now, both held up a mirror and driven the bus when it comes to the culture of mountain towns—virtually redefining it in the eyes of many. No other event in any other place in the world comes close. I’m not alone in saying I can’t wait for next year’s 20th anniversary.