My Cinema

30 April 2018

HotDocs Q&A: This Mountain Life director Grant Baldwin

By // Cinema

Toronto’s HotDocs Festival is in full swing, and if you are craving a spectacular nature documentary look no further than Grant Baldwin’s love letter to British Columbia, This Mountain Life.

Baldwin follows several subjects lust for adventure, solitude or inner peace. He travels alongside a mother and daughter team, Martina and Tania as they take a arduous six month journey traversing the Coastal Mountains of BC and Alaska. They are the only two women to have ever done this. In addition, Baldwin captures a monastery in the Squashmish River Valley where the nuns only speak once a day for an hour. All the while, Baldwin doesn’t shy away from the dangers of the terrain sharing the story of a man named Todd who was trapped in the snow for hours after an avalanche. It’s a reminder of the extreme conditions and how much preparation and training is needed to defend yourself from danger. The film’s universal message about the limitless possibilities of human endurance is inspirational for anyone, even if you aren’t interested in exploring this remote countryside.

I had the opportunity to gush with Baldwin over our mutual affection for BC, as well as discover how he was able to shoot this majestic landscape all by himself.

How did you get attached to this project?
I’ve worked in film filming pro sports and snowboarders over the years. I kept meeting all these interesting people that lived remotely or spent all their time in the mountains outside the city. I worked with Todd at a photography shoot where he sat me down and told me the story about how he got buried, maybe died and then came back [to life]. At some point, I thought I want to do a story about BC and I thought of Todd’s story, so that’s how we started. We found Martina and Tanya and then it snowballed into a film from there.

How did you find your other subjects?
You would think now with communication you would find everyone online, but everyone that we found in our film was through word of mouth. Bernhard has been off the grid for years, and we heard about him through a friend. He has a post office box, so we mailed him a letter. Then he mailed us a map back on how to get to him. (Laughs.) It’s a beautiful hand drawn map with sketches of things to see along the way. I found an article for the nuns who live up the Squamish River Valley and even the locals don’t really know that they’re there.

How long did you follow Martina and Tania?
There’s no way hardly anyone could do that trip. They are the only two women who have ever done it. The way we filmed their trip was we started with them, met them in the middle and finished the trip with them. They supplied us with GoPro footage and stuff they captured on their cell phone. They did a really good job getting the moments that we couldn’t have got.

How did you approach the nuns at the monastery to be subjects?
We approached them really gently and we didn’t want to push them with cameras. We showed them previous films we’ve done to show that we’re good people, then they were open to being filmed. They are actually silent nuns, so they live in silence and have an hour of social time. They chat then, but most of the time they’re in silent prayer.

Are you traditionally a filmmaker or a photographer?
I do everything and I’ve always done that. I direct feature docs: shoot, edit and write the music. Producer Jen [Rustemeyer] also helped me with some of the editing in terms of story, and helped me get interview questions. She’s a huge part in [why the film] turned out so well.

How did you achieve some of these incredible aerial shots?
[We accessed] a lot of the places by helicopter, but we were working with a budget that wouldn’t allow us to do those kinds of aerials. Most of it has been with a drone that I’ve been using, which we’d have to carry around with us to different places. We tried to not over do the drone in the sense of flying around. Sometimes we just place it and not move it. The idea of using camera in a locked shot, but you can put it into a perspective you can’t get otherwise. We’ve been hammered with drone shots, because it’s so accessible [to other filmmakers].

Were you also the Director of Photography?
Yes, we had to stay small because a lot of the shoots were remote. I don’t know many crew that can survive out there. You need to have avalanche, glacial travel and rope skills just to be safe out there. The smaller the crew the less chance we have slowing down Martina and Tania as we are following them. I shoot everything and do sound in the field. I had a helper who would help setting up camp, and lug lots of equipment.

How did you want to characterized nature within this film?
The idea was to show the scale of what we have in our backyard. A lot of ski and adventure films [take place in] Nepal or South America, because it’s very spectacular. There is a lack of nature adventure films set in the BC mountains and they’re so massive. Seventy-five percent of BC are mountains and no one is living in them except for these few people. I wanted to show a side of BC to people that most never see in a documentary. Some of these [landscapes] are seventy kilometers long and you do feel like you are in the remote desert or on another planet. There was one night where we were going across an ice field and we turned off our headlamps and we travelled by the light of the stars and the full moon. It’s not something you can capture on film, but it was magical.

What overall message are you hoping to convey to a broader audience?
It comes down to Martina, the daughter. She thought she couldn’t make it and wanted to quit many times. What she thought was her personal threshold wasn’t and she could go further. That’s a metaphor for anything in life. We sometimes box ourselves into these limits, but to realize that it was just another plateau that we hit and we could achieve another level. I hope that [Martina and Tania’s] story will resonate with people because for one they’re small women that you wouldn’t expect to do something so intense. I think that’s inspiring all by itself.

This Mountain Life plays at the 2018 HotDocs Canadian International Documentary Festival: Wednesday May 2nd @3:30 pm and Friday May 4th @ 11:45 am. For tickets visit hotdocs.ca

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