This film is billed as the best selling ski film of all time. One that ‘compares the challenges of big mountain skiing to the challenges of climate change’. I liked its trailer, which did seem to be saying something about over consumption and energy. As a backcountry skier and climate campaigner, I was stoked when I finally got to watch it, a few years after it came out.
It is, without doubt, a beautiful film way beyond the normal parametres of ski porn. There is a long and meditative intro focused on lava flows and the ability of life to prevail. It has the most incredible time lapse imagery that crosses days and seasons, not just minutes or hours. It sometimes feels like a modern day version of Koyaanisqatsi, placed onto a set of skis, as we watch the earth breathe in time to the pull of the tides and the slow arc of the sun. It is engaging, set around a series of seemingly random ‘chapters’. You get to hang out with a bunch of likeable, real people as they have adventures in gorgeous mountains. To me it seemed unpretentious. There is the avalanche section, some graceful shots of groups of people skiing through forests, base camp fun. There is a fantastic clip of legendary skier JP Auclair skiing through the grim snowy streets of a BC logging town, one of the best short grabs of skiing I have ever seen. And, of course there are the obligatory scenes of people charging incredible ribs and lines in places like BC and Alaska. We head off to Chile to ski volcanoes and to Greenland. It starts to get a bit philosophical as skiers find themselves amongst strange and distant cultures.
There are discordant notes, too. There was some sledneck who feels slightly bad that he trashes the mountains on his snowmobile, but justifies it by saying that’s what he does so he doesn’t feel too bad, and is certainly not going to stop doing it. The message is Do what you want, and stuff the consequences (the sound track reminds us that ‘the darkness gives us our thrill’). This message becomes more apparent later on. It was way too helicopter heavy for my tastes, but I persevered, because its visually compelling. You start to get a sense of the crew who are skiing, of camaraderie and incredible talent.
Helicopters, snowmobiles. There are patches where it all feels a bit Warren Miller. But then we get to a deeper level. As they find themselves climbing peaks in Morocco, someone says: ‘looking out over the barren desert its hard not to wonder if this is our future’ and notes that ‘we are all connected in the same problem’ – mistreatment of the earth ….
Cue amazing images of industry, factories, felled trees, ocean tankers and cut to a young guy saying that he wants his kids to be able to ski.
And then the film loses any edge it may have been building. Far from having a meaningful contribution to the debate about the impacts of climate change, it veers into the type of messaging you would expect if Peabody Coal made a film about skiing and climate change. It is happy to offer glib ‘everything will be ok if we’re smart’ answers. It segways into a nice but disconnected piece about a group of old timers from British Columbia, then an even weirder piece about a young kid knowing not to eat snow that has dog poop in it.
Cut to Auden Schendler, Vice President of Sustainability at Aspen Skiing Company, who says that by definition skiers have to be environmentalists and just being out on the slopes switches people on. Of course, Aspen is the epitome of high consumption, fly in fly out lifestyles. It is not, and will never be, remotely sustainable while it relies on this model, even if you offset some emissions. Aspen is not a model for sustainability for a planet with 7 billion people.
The take home spiel, delivered in the last few minutes of the film is appallingly bad. Our friend JP tells us that having a pair of skis is as bad as flying around the world or using helicopters, because all these things are made in a factory (so why bother?). But its all OK because skiers are demanding change. There is a vague suggestion that technological innovation will save us if we have the right attitude. No sense of ecological limits or personal responsibility, no sense of the actual reality of climate change, just some trite pap about doing ‘more’ not ‘less’ and making planes and ski resorts carbon neutral. JP (who is billed as being co-director and much of the film seems like a homage to his awesomeness), is the authoritive voice at the end. He has an astoundingly shallow understanding of climate change, yet gets to provide the wrap up message: keep doing whatever it is you’re doing, and as long as we are smart, everything will be ok.
What a wasted opportunity. The film is beautiful and visually compelling. It uses music well to build emotion and connection. And then it blows it all on some lame arse corporate line – with a take home message that would make a CEO of BP or Shell sleep easy in their beds. Don’t challenge the system, or individual or collective consumption, or the fossil fuel industry. Certainly don’t take personal responsibility if it means changing your behaviour. Smart capitalists will innovate by doing ‘more’ and save the day. There is no climate crisis here, just an opportunity for new business. What is sad is that so many incredibly good skiers have become complicit in this bit of propaganda through appearing in what is otherwise a beautiful, poetic and compelling film: that’s what makes it so dangerous.
All.I.can. Sherpas Cinema. 2011. Available here.
[JP Auclair has helped establish an NGO called Alpine Attitudes, which aims to ‘engage the snow sports community in sustainable initiatives that connect people and planet’].
UPDATE. JP Auclair passed away on September 29, 2014 in an avalanche in Patagonia. As a result, the Auclair Fund was established to benefit his wife, Ingrid, and their son, Leo. To learn more, visit alpineinitiatives.org/theauclairfund