'Free Solo' Tops Kendal Mountain Festival


“Free Solo” won the Grand Prize at the Kendal Mountain Festival on Saturday night. A contender in Kendal’s main International Film Competition, the documentary from E. Chai Vasarhelyi, who helmed Sundance hit “Meru,” and Jimmy Chin, a climber in that film, was the overall winner in a lineup of 90 mountain and adventure films.

The audience – despite being predominantly mountaineers and outdoor enthusiasts themselves – still shuddered, flinched and sweated as the story of this unroped climb of the El Capitan rockface by the climber Alex Honnold unfolded. Not only does this film record the extraordinary achievement of a near impossible climb, but it also is not afraid to confront the climber and colleagues with the real possibility of failure and death.

Wonderful Loser,” from Lithuania’s Arunas Matelis, took the Special Judges Prize. along with Krystle Wright and Toby Pike’s short  “Chasing Monsters,” from Austrialia. Already with a clutch of awards to its credit, this is 72 minutes focussing on the unglamorous and painful world of the also-rans of elite cycle teams who have to sacrifice everything for the greater glory of their teammates.

The best mountaineering film plaudit went to “La Congenialità: The Attitude of Gratitude,”  by Germany’s Christian Schmidt. Mainly filmed at an 8,000 meters altitude in the Himalayas, here was a film where a hyperventilating audience forgot the question of whether this was a mountaineer making a film or a filmmaker trying to keep up with climbing superstars.

“La Congenialtà” turns on Simone Moro, an internationally recognized mountaineer, climbing with the much younger and inexperienced Tamara Lunger. The ascent does not go as planned: a Kendal audience warmed to the humor and honesty in a film concentrating very much on the personalities involved rather than the mountaineering.

British journalist Keme Nzerem, the jury chair for the third year running, praised the winners for showing stories and intimate details of the lives, fears, hopes and dreams of climbers and athletes.  “We love how all films we chose resonate on both an emotional and intellectual level, we know they will also resonate with anyone with an interest in film too.”

In this, the Kendal Mountain Festival is part of a bigger picture: The trend to ever more character-driven narrative is of course a hallmark of not only extreme sports documentaries but premium series in general.

Praise was also directed to the high technical quality of the winners, capturing images and sound in some of the most difficult environments.

Best sound winner “Parasol Peak,” directed by Johannes Aitzetmuller and Jeb Hardwick, exemplified this with a collection of music recorded by an ensemble of musicians on a mountaineering expedition in the Alps. Exploring the odd integration of mountainside with cello, trombone, percussion and woodwind, the music, all recorded live, is played with the musicians belayed on to ridges and rock-faces, with apparently minimal technical recording equipment (and possibly minimal enjoyment by the musicians themselves).

Kendal’s program theme this year was “connection” and included films with ecological, cultural, wilderness and aesthetic themes. These varied from the Andrew King’s feature about the single longest hole of golf ever played (“The Longest Hole: Golfing Across Mongolia”) to “Ascending Afghanistan” (Erik Osterholm), winner of the best culture award, detailing the obstacles faced by the first female Afghan mountaineering team.

According to the organizers. Kendal’s Film Competition attracted 15,000 visitors to the small lakeland town of Kendal in the Lake District of northern England. Shortlisted films represented 15 countries in competition for a specially sculpted trophy, and made up eleven award categories.

The Kendal Mountain Festival ran Nov. 15-18.

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