In Boulder, it seems that climbing culture has always been around – the need to wear stretchy pants, to make impossible ascents, to perform crazy feats of gravity-defying derring-do. There, climbing is a kind of hypercompetitive Zen performance art. It’s fitting then that a new, epic climbing-history documentary, Valley Uprising, screens at the Boulder International Film Festival on Friday, March 6.
This formerly countercultural activity was centered in and refined at California’s Yosemite National Park. Valley Uprising, the latest feature documentary from Boulder’s Sender Films, chronicles the history, characters, ideas, and conflicts that created the climbing world we know today on massive features such as Half Dome and El Capitan.
Nick Rosen makes films at Sender; for ten years, he’s been directing, producing, writing, and editing there, after a previous career as a journalist. He employed all four skills on the new movie, although he is quick to credit co-creator Peter Mortimer.
“Peter founded Sender, and he thought of this project seven years ago. We started working on it in our free time, then on nights and weekends, then we just decided to go for it,” says Rosen. Mortimer, Rosen, and legendary climber Lynn Hill, one of the film’s many interviewees, will attend the screening and be interviewed afterward.
Sender Films is noted for its pioneering work in the genre of adventure films. “We really developed a genre from the genres that came before it – climbing movies, sports movies,” says Rosen. “However, due to the nature of climbing stories, and our narrative predilections, our movies are much story-driven and character-driven.”
Valley Uprising is complex and compelling, much more than amazing footage of sculpted, wild-haired goat people clambering nimbly among the peaks. Somehow, Sender’s cameras keep up with them.
“The climbing photography — that was the easiest part,” says Rosen. “The real challenge was how to get this kind of broad-swath 50-year history, and decide who the central characters were, and the right balance between exposition and personal narrative. Plus, climbing is more esoteric than curling. You have to understand it technically to really appreciate it. I sat up many nights thinking about just how much to put in about expansion bolts.”
The movie centers on the changing generations of rebellious, idiosyncratic outlaws who lived in the park, living only to climb, throwing down with each other, the park’s more sedate visitors, and the park’s rangers. Great names in climbing – Royal Robbins, Warren Harding, Jim Bridwell, John Bachar, Dean Potter, and Alex Honnold – show up in an artful assemblage of interviews and archival footage.
Another aspect of gonzo climbing culture was the massive intake of booze, dope, and hallucinogens by its members. Part of the tale involves the crash of a weed-laden Lockheed Lodestar into Lower Merced Pass Lake on December 9, 1976. Many 80-pound bales of "prime, red-haired, airplane-fuel-soaked" marijuana were chopped out of the ice, and consumed and sold, by the rogue climbers. The participants' gleeful grins seem to prove that Jah will indeed sometimes provide.
Valley Uprising is also unique in that it’s not dependent on securing a distribution deal. Sender’s on-site VOD and purchase options eliminate the middleman, and make its films’ availability instant and worldwide.
Rosen says, “To get a distribution deal for a documentary film just happens less and less. We just decided our distribution model works so well, we’ve got this great platform. (Self-distribution) kills your chances to go to Sundance, but we also put it on our REEL ROCK Tour that goes to 500 cities worldwide. There’s this little world of mountain film festivals, and we’ve won eight or nine Grand Prizes at them with Valley Uprising, so in our pond we’ve made this great splash.”
Its wider appeal is confirmed by a March 5 announcement that the Discovery Channel will anchor its “Elevation Weekend” with the broadcast premiere of the film on April 25.
“I’m delighted that such as big audience will be exposed to it,” Rosen says. “I’m amazed to be on the same channel as Naked and Afraid and Shark Week!”
Valley Uprising will be presented at the Boulder International Film Festival on Friday, March 6, at 10 p.m. in the Boulder Theater, 2032 14th Street, Boulder. For tickets and information, please visit www.biff1.com. For more information on Sender Films, please visit senderfilms.com.
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