It's been close to four decades since the inception of Telluride Co.'s Mountainfilm Festival. It was launched in 1979 when a small clutch of experienced mountain climbers and nature explorers gathered after long days out on the rock face to watch filmed footage of similar exploits. It has since become an internationally known showcase for the best and brightest documentary filmmakers specializing in docs (both short and feature length) on the world of extreme outdoor sports, the beauty and majesty of the world around us and mankind's quest for connection to our natural environment.
Since 2010, the touring version of this esteemed event - which criss-crosses the globe for months following each year's Mountainfilm Fest in Telluride - has made a welcomed stop in downtown Savannah, courtesy of Mountainfilm on Tour - Savannah. The locally based nonprofit coordinates the three-day event and helps to curate a selection of the best and most entertaining films from the most recent Colorado installment of the positivity-themed showcase.
'Take Every Wave'
This year, our local version of Mountainfilm takes place at Trustees Theater and kicks off with a special presentation of a recently released, feature-length documentary on the life and legacy of superstar surfer and extreme sports icon Laird Hamilton.
"Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton" was directed by Oscar-nominated filmmaker Rory Kennedy ("Ghosts of Abu Ghraib," "Last Days in Vietnam"). The film profiles the life of Hamilton, who, in addition to earning worldwide recognition for his stamina and agility on the water, has also become known for his iconoclastic, larger-than-life persona. Raised from childhood in the surfing community, his innovations and exploits in the sport are widely known. However, critics and viewers alike have responded favorably to this doc, which is said to offer a well-rounded, warts-and-all portrait of a complex, charismatic and driven individual.
Speaking to me from his home in Hawaii, Hamilton says the origins of this documentary were much smaller in scope than the finished product now in limited theatrical release.
"Initially," he explains, "I simply wanted to document some of the latest evolutions in our performance of what some call surfing, but I call wave riding. I'm at the point in my career where I haven't been documenting so well what's been going on of late, so that was my original intention. Then, when we were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work with Rory Kennedy and her crew and her husband, the film kinda took a turn.
"Not being a storyteller myself, I relinquished any concept direction and relied on their expertise. After they went through the material, they decided they would prefer making something about my life, as they felt it would have a bigger reach and greater effect."
Far from typical
Kennedy, who spoke with me from near her own home in Southern California, says she knew Hamilton slightly through mutual friends and from around their neighborhood (the Hamiltons maintain a second home in Malibu Beach), and had grown up familiar with traditional surfing documentaries.
"We live within a couple miles of each other and had met a few times," says Kennedy. "One friend approached us about making a film about Laird. I have always loved watching extreme sports films. I love all the great old surfing documentaries, but I wasn't interested in making one of those 'typical' surfer docs: you know, the ones where there's a guy on a wave and then shots of him standing around in some beautiful place. My approach was to find out what drives someone to tackle an enormous wave with the power of an avalanche and the size of a tall building in New York City.
"The other aspect [of Laird's story] that appealed to me was that he was not just a surfer, but an innovator. He has physically pushed himself and the human body physically in amazing ways, and that has in turn changed the sport of surfing pretty radically."
Hamilton was familiar with such motion pictures. In fact, much more familiar than most.
"As a kid, I was deeply entrenched in the very small group of great surfers and filmmakers," he says. "My mom and my stepdad were in many movies about surfing. Some of my mom's best friends were some of the best documentary filmmakers, as well as great surfers. At that point in the '60s and early '70s, that was a very small group of people. So, I was exposed directly to that stuff for as far back as I can remember."
Kennedy says it was Hamilton's drive and determination to be his own person that fascinated her, and she assumed others would find those aspects of his life fascinating, as well.
No sanitized story
"Many elements of his story appealed to me," she elaborates. "But I wanted to document someone who is so singularly focused on living their passion. I think so many of us go through our lives following what we're supposed to do, and to experience someone who is passionately pursuing what they want to do is very beautiful to see.
"However, there is a cost to that as well, and I think the film shows that. It provides some complexity and nuance to the story in a way that I hope a lot of people can relate to."
Hamilton says he gave the filmmakers complete control over how much of his private life to include in this portrait, and while he knew seeing some of his own foibles and failures enshrined for posterity on the big screen would be painful in some regards, he felt presenting a sanitized version of his story would be both dishonest and self-defeating.
"This film paints a fair portrait of my life. I'm pretty open about everything, so it was 'full disclosure.' Anything that was left out was simply because it did little to add any real value to the story.
"My wife Gabby and I did not want to create a faÃ§ade that's not true. We're just humans like everybody else and we try to be the best we can. So, Rory will be the first to tell you, I gave her everybody's phone number - even those who might not agree with me! It's not the unadulterated, entire version of my life, but whatever she deemed the most critical in telling my story appears in the film. I've been open, and shared, and I think that gives the film the best chance it could have."
'Blessing and a curse'
In a marked contrast to some documentary films that struggle with cobbling together enough real-life footage and photographs to properly illustrate the narrative being told, "Take Every Wave" suffered from the exact opposite: they wound up unearthing far too much worthwhile film and video of Hamilton to possibly include in a 90-minute movie.
"That was both a blessing and a curse," muses Kennedy. "Ultimately a blessing, but there was so much material we had to go through, that became its own challenge. Much of his footage was tied up in legal and financial issues which [were only resolved] about six months into the editing process when we were nearing completion of the film. Suddenly, we received 800 hours of material! We were thrilled, but thought, oh my God, how are we even going to get through this treasure trove? A lot of this footage nobody has ever seen before, but we had to sort through all of it and make it work within the movie we had, and that meant adapting our film to that footage. This complicated things a bit, but contributed greatly to the final product.
"I think the documentary as it stands can be quite transportive to audiences. The archive was so rich with material, so that when Laird reminisced to us about having once broken his ankle, you can actually watch him hobbling around on a pile of surfboards with that broken ankle. The extraordinary footage of him growing up both on and off the water helps viewers to understand how chaotic his life was as a kid."
A human story
Hamilton feels the finished version of "Take Every Wave" has the potential to resonate with an unusually broad swath of viewers. Much as he knows from decades in the public eye that surfing itself has a broad appeal far beyond the folks who actually paddle out into the waves and risk life and limb for the thrill of communing with the awesome power of the tides.
"I think [surfing] speaks to the human condition," he says. "There is something free about it. There's an essence of freedom which surfing represents - along with the beauty and intimacy of one's relationship with the ocean, which is the birthplace of all life. It's much deeper than just some guys out there riding waves on surfboards. It's obviously one of the few activities people do which almost requires that they build their lives around it. In my opinion, most lifestyle activities are nature-oriented. You know, campers, fishermen, hunters. They are all connected to primal instincts, as well as to the ocean."
Kennedy has certainly ridden a wave or two in her life, but says one should not assume that because she directed a documentary rooted in the surfing world that she is a real part of that community herself.
"We live near the water and I grew up sailing and water skiing. That gives me a deep appreciation for the ocean, and I try to spend as much time on or near it as I can. We moved to California about eight years ago and that was my first exposure to surfing. I'm 49 years old, and I go out and jump on a board every now and then. But even though it's super fun and I love doing it, I have a full-time job and three kids! So, I wouldn't call myself a surfer, but the larger things which appeal to me about this story don't relate to surfing at all."
Hamilton says he's been thrilled the documentary is reaching a varied audience.
"Truly, this film has reached a wide variety of people from very diverse backgrounds," says Hamilton. "You know, grandparents and people who don't really care or know much at all about surfing. A movie about surfing probably wouldn't hold any interest to them in the first place, let alone have any effect on them. In the end, it's a human story, and surfing just happens to be the backdrop."
For her part, Kennedy says she's disappointed she is not able to travel to Savannah to attend this Mountainfilm on Tour screening and that she hopes the movie is well-received by the Trustees Theater audience on Jan. 18.
Hamilton says the same, and when asked if he was pleased with the final cut of the film that bears his name, he responds with great enthusiasm.
"Absolutely! I am humbled by the results. It has been received incredibly well. I'm fortunate to be involved with a film which has, in my opinion, had such a great effect and touched so many more people than I could have hoped for."
IF YOU GO
What: Mountainfilm on Tour - Savannah
When: Jan. 18-20; all ages
7 p.m.: "Take Every Wave: The Life of Laird Hamilton" feature-length film by Rory Kennedy; Trustees Theater, 216 E. Broughton St.; $15
7 p.m.: Shorts and documentaries; Trustees Theater; $15
10 a.m.: Coffee talk with visiting filmmakers and personalities; Kennedy Pharmacy, 323 E. Broughton St.; free
11:30 a.m.: Organized bike ride/walk with Savannah Bicycle Campaign; Kennedy Pharmacy; free
2 p.m.: Family matinee, 13 shorts; Trustees Theater; $5; kids 12 and younger show program or ticket stub at Leopold's Ice Cream afterward for a free scoop
7 p.m.: Shorts and documentaries; Trustees Theater; $15