Review: Reel Rock 11

Last night, I shouldered one of the weightier responsibilities of my profession as I pulled some overtime and attended a screening of Reel Rock 11. It’s a tough gig, folks, make no mistake.

Since 2006, the Reel Rock Film Tour has come along in leaps and bounds, with the collaborative efforts of Big Up Productions and Sender Films producing a vast catalogue of climbing documentaries. These have included tenuous, cringeworthy efforts which have failed the test of time such as First Ascent, as well as critically acclaimed, award winning entries such as Valley Uprising.

Reel Rock has traditionally been a showcase of the year that was, a glance at the various facets of the climbing community. Its strength has therefore relied on an interesting dichotomy: specific, yet diverse… which is to say that the films focus on climbing at the expense of other outdoor sports, yet portray the vast spectrum of pursuits within that specific niche.

The tours of recent years, although interesting, have somewhat failed to embrace that same diversity. Reel Rock 9 featured a single documentary, the aforementioned homage to Yosemite, Valley Uprising. Whilst this film is certainly entertaining, I found it a little too homogenous for entry into a tour which is ostensibly meant to be a collection of reels. I also feel that the film’s second half fell inevitably flat, the portrayal of the modern era little more than a timid echo of the heady seasons of the Golden Age. And as for Reel Rock 10, well it may as well have been titled “The Caldwell/Honnold Variety Hour”.

Reel Rock’s eleventh outing, however, represents a triumphant return to form and reasserts its position of dominance in the world of outdoor cinema. There is literally something for everyone here, from boulderers to alpinists and everyone in between. These films have been selected and edited with surgical precision.

The reels on offer this year are as follows (synopses taken from reelrocktour.com):

YOUNG GUNS
Meet the new faces of climbing: 15-year-old Ashima Shiraishi and 16-year-old Kai Lightner are the leaders of the next generation, already taking the sport to the next level. A trip to Norway puts their skills to the test, and Ashima attempts to make history on a V15 boulder in Japan.

BOYS IN THE BUGS
Will Stanhope and Matt Segal are elite-level crack climbers and world-class goofballs. Laugh along as they go for broke on an epic four-year battle to climb a forbidding 5.14 finger crack high in the Canadian alpine wilderness of the Bugaboos.

BRETTE
Follow rising talent Brette Harrington on a global journey from her hometown granite in Squamish to the big wall proving ground of Yosemite’s El Capitan and onto a landmark free solo in Patagonia.

RAD DAD
Lone wolf Mike Libecki travels to the most remote corners of the globe to find unclimbed walls and establish first ascents. When Mike becomes a father, he has a new challenge: to reconcile his life of adventure with the demands of parenthood, but he may also gain a new partner for his expeditions.

DODO’S DELIGHT
Pack your penny whistle and batten down the hatches for a madcap sailing adventure in the Arctic Circle aboard the good ship Dodo’s Delight. Join Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll, Ben Ditto, and brothers Nico and Olivier Favresse for a rollicking musical journey across open seas and up unclimbed big walls.

For me, it’s a toss-up between Boys in the Bugs and Dodo’s Delight for the best film of the bunch. I suppose there is some bias in this – these films appeal to the kind of climber I am and the kind of climber I aspire to be.

But there’s a bit more to it than that. Each of these films recognises that the strength of a documentary lies not in the event or the location. These are mere backdrops. The most interesting element of any documentary is humanity. Spectacular scenery and incredible athleticism are captivating, but it is the personalities behind them which truly inspire us. Both of these films are positively bursting at the seams with character and therein lies their success.

I take my hat off to Reel Rock 11. It’s a tour de force which takes the spotlight away from routes, walls and locations and puts it back where it reflects most brightly – on the climber.

Shabbi’s analysis:
4 out of 5 Stars

Originally published in September 2016

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