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Passion for the outdoors

Beauty and bounty with Canada's Banff Mountain Film Festival

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It's perfectly understandable to confuse the Banff Mountain Film Festival, making its Savannah debut this week, with the similarly-titled Mountainfilm on Tour, which has been coming here regularly for several years.

Both traveling picture shows are dedicated to screening scenic, high-adventure documentaries, bringing thrilling oceanic, Arctic and yes, mountain-scaling movies to those of us who wouldn't know a mountain or an iceberg if they sprung up at the east end of Bay Street.

But while the Colorado-based Mountainfilm has lately expanded its scope to include environmental and conservation films, and cinematic treatises on the social injustices of the "civilized" planet, Banff — headquartered in Alberta, Canada — comes to Savannah with its original manifesto intact.

"Our mission, really, is to inspire passion for the outdoors, and really foster creative excellence by showcasing the best mountain adventures stories told," explains Banff tour programming director Joni Cooper. "And we can do that through the tour."

In other words, Banff just wants to showcase the beauty of the natural world, and the adventurer's place in it.

It's all worked out just fine so far. "We've been on tour for 20 years and covered 40 countries on all seven continents at this point," Cooper explains.

(Yes, the Banff tour even goes to Antarctica.)

Calling itself an "arts and creativity incubator," the Banff Center is one of Canada's creative crown jewels. At the annual film festival (held in November), artists, writers, filmmakers and literati come together to brainstorm. It's a "think factory." The "best" films at each year's event are then sent on the road, although they're not all necessarily underwritten by Banff.

"One of our main goals here at the Banff Center is to disseminate what we do to the world," Cooper explains. "Not only do we mentor and provide training for filmmakers, we also work to get their work out into the world as far as we can. This tour has been a tremendous way to bring these tremendously inspirational stories out into the world.

"We want to encourage filmmakers of all stripes, from all over the world, men and women, to just keep on making these incredible films so that we can help get their works out there."

The "local host" for the Banff films is Half Moon Outfitters — the staff has a say in which films will or will not be screened here. Although the confirmed playlist was not available at press time, the Savannah show will likely include 2012 Grand Prize winner Crossing the Ice, an Australian documentary about two men — just them — making the arduous trek across Antarctica, to the South Pole, and back again.

"We found the humor and humanity in the face of incredible adversity an important element in this film," wrote a member of the jury that honored Crossing the Ice. "What could have become a competition evolved into a greater example of camaraderie and friendship."

Also a distinct possibility, Savannah-wise, is The Gimp Monkeys, in which three friends attempt the first all-disabled ascent of Yosemite's iconic El Capitan, and the 11-minute South African film 5 Races, 5 Continents, centered on the extreme sport of mountain running.

"You would not believe the letters that we get from people who are so inspired by what they see on the films during the tour," says Cooper. "With our reach throughout the world, we get amazing feedback.

"And one thing we're really working on now is trying to encourage more films by women, featuring women, because there's a little bit of a lacking there. Because we also get feedback from folks saying 'Where are the women?' And now, about half of our filmmaker participants are women. So that's a good sign."

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