“We are now in the mountains and they are in us…”
—John Muir (and Cheryl Strayed)
Is there a screen big enough to convey the power of Canada’s mountains? The ravishingly shot This Mountain Life is a spectacular production that deserves to be seen on the widest screen one can find. This doc from director Grant Baldwin and producer Jenny Rustemeyer (Just Eat It: A Food Waste Story) is a love letter to the outdoors.
Few Canadians truly experience the majestic mountains that comprise much of the nation’s iconic landscape. They might be the backdrop for a ski vacation, a quick trip, or, nowadays, a quick selfie. This Mountain Life provides the opposite: an immersive journey through the peaks and valleys of the Coastal Mountains as the filmmakers follow a mother-daughter team along a six-month trek from Squamish, BC to Alaska.
“We live in this country and we don’t see most of it,” observes Baldwin, speaking with POV ahead of the film’s Hot Docs premiere. “BC is 75% mountains—but so few people visit them outside the resorts. Mountain filmmakers tend to visit Nepal, South America, or some other far-off mountain range, but we can do a film on that scale in our backyards.”
Baldwin recalls finding inspiration for a Canadian mountain film while meeting skiers and other athletes for promotional shoots. “I always met interesting characters in the mountains, but framing them around a promotional film didn’t work for me,” says Baldwin. “It bothers me that mountain films always have a bunch of logos—that takes you out of the story and the characters. It’s about a product when it should be about the action; the people.”
This Mountain Life finds two great characters in Tania and Martina Halik, the mother-daughter team who embrace their inner Cheryl Strayed and embark on a transformative journey à la Wild. The 2300km trek is ambitious by any measure, particularly for the 60-year-old Tania. Five months in winter’s bitter cold will test any bond—or bone.
The difficulty and length of the Haliks’ journey means the shoot was equally ambitious. “The logistics for this film were very hard, so it was better to be small,” reflects Baldwin. “The most people ever on a shoot was two, so that we could travel with the Haliks and not slow them down. They had to move every day. We kept in touch with them with a satellite device called inReach, which gives a wave point to show where the message comes from.” Whether by foot, helicopter, or some combination of the two, the filmmakers would rendezvous with the Haliks in the mountains to document the journey.
Baldwin adds that the Haliks filmed much of their own expedition for practical reasons. Some footage comes via phone cameras and GoPros to give intimate perspectives as they traverse rugged terrain. “We would shoot when we met up with them to build the story of something that had happened in the past,” explains Baldwin. “We wanted to stay present.”
The exceptionally cold winter is another palpable element of the production. “Most of the time, because it was such a cold winter, their equipment wasn’t working and batteries would die instantly,” admits Baldwin. “In coastal humidity, that moisture would just freeze everything up. I had to spoon my camera in my sleeping bag to get it to work,” he laughs. The winter chill refreshes This Mountain Life, however, and the blustering winds and cold winter nights add to the experience. The director admits that one camera was lost to the snow, but its death was not in vain.
PEAKS AND VALLEYS
The doc features Tania and Martina reflecting upon their experience in interviews, which Baldwin inserts throughout the film, while they frequently turn the camera upon themselves. There are tears of frustration, but also tears of pride and joy. This Mountain Life captures the highs and lows of their experience as they push themselves physically and mentally. Particularly engaging is a tense sequence that sees them temporarily stranded without food when one of their supply drops is lost to the snow; it conveys the nature of a landscape that is both beautiful and unforgiving.
“There’s more to the story that’s not in the movie,” cautions Baldwin. “Six months is a long time. There was one moment where Martina was taken in an avalanche and Tania thought she’d lost her daughter, but she came out on top. This will have to go in their book, because we just didn’t have coverage of all of their time.”
One doesn’t feel shortchanged by the missing coverage, however, since the doc added to the Haliks’ story with experiences of other Canadians overwhelmed by the magnitude of the mountains. One white-knuckler of a chapter compensates for Martina’s near-death experience by conveying the story of a snowboarder, Todd, who was consumed by metres of snow before his friends’ eyes. This sequence injects devastating elements of danger and urgency as his friends Janina and Ian recall their effort to find him in the avalanche’s wake. The doc features adrenaline-pumping re-enactments to dramatize the story. “We basically did a radio edit from the interviews and I went out with a couple of friends who had experience in the backcountry,” explains Baldwin. “The site where we filmed the reenactment was hit later that day—an avalanche went down right where we were filming.”
The film rhythmically cuts to other stories that show different aspects of the mountains: the poetry, the danger, the escapism, the simplicity and the grace. The film opens with the breathtaking image of artist Simon Beck, who creates a jaw-dropping snowflake portrait in a mountain bowl using only his footprints, his sense of direction, and 12 hours of expertise. Métis alpinist Barry Blanchard relates the tribal aspects of mountaineering to the sense of community in his culture. Homesteader Bernhard Thorn, who left East Berlin to escape pressures similar to those that forced Tania to leave Czechoslovakia, shares the pleasures of living off-grid. Finally, Sister Claire, a former professional skier and nun at the Queen of Peace Monastery, conveys the peaceful serenity one finds in a landscape that puts heaven within reach. “The freedom of Canada just has this allure, this draw,” observes Baldwin, noting that mountain life appeals for reasons beyond sport.
THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND
This Mountain Life bridges the various stories through sweeping drone shots and aerial cinematography that let audiences touch the sky. It’s revitalizing to feel so connected to nature, even if it’s in a darkened movie theatre within a concrete jungle.
Baldwin and Rustemeyer’s doc isn’t an “environmental film” per se, but the stories imply a greater relationship between humans and their natural environments. “We didn’t want to do another environmental film that we weren’t passionate about,” replies Baldwin when asked if This Mountain Life joins Just Eat It in an oeuvre of eco docs. “There are issues that are subtle: the idea of freedom, following your heart, being a woman in the mountain world and finding respect. Climate change is in there. Martina and Tania had to change their route because the glacier disappeared.” Baldwin adds that the film was ultimately about the people of the mountains. Seeing the landscape from their perspectives inevitably invites one to share their affinity for and responsibility to the land. It’s an awe-inspiring breath of fresh air.
This Mountain Life screens:
-Mon, Apr. 30 at 6:15 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Wed, May 2 at 3:30 PM at Isabel Bader
-Fri, May 4 at 11:45 AM at Scotiabank
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.
Correction: this article misidentified the mountain range depicted in the film as the Rockies, rather than the Coast Mountains. Apologies to the adventurers in both ranges.