Anchorage International Film Festival opens Friday

Mike Campbell
"A Life Ascending" will be part of the Anchorage International Film Fest, which starts Dec. 3, 2010 at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub.
Courtesy of the Anchorage International Film Festival
"A Life Ascending" will be part of the Anchorage International Film Fest, which starts Dec. 3, 2010 at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub.
Courtesy of the Anchorage International Film Festival

Many Alaskans are familiar with the tale of Hig Higman and wife Erin McKittrick walking, paddling and skiing from Seattle to the tip of the Alaska Peninsula -- an unprecedented trek through some of the most rugged and pristine terrain in North America.

Their journey spawned newspaper and magazine stories, plus McKittrick's book "The Long Journey Home," before a month-long follow-up expedition this year in northwest Alaska.

At the Anchorage International Film Festival, which opens Friday, Alaskans will be able to see the trip unfold for the first time.

"Journey on the Wild Coast" is Greg Chaney's documentary of the journey, largely filmed by Higman and McKittrick themselves. The two-hour film is one of a handful of outdoors and adventure films sprinkled throughout the festival based in Alaska or the Pacific Northwest. The couple wil be at the two screenings, Dec. 6 at 7:45 p.m. and Dec. 7 at 7 p.m. at Out North Theatre.

"It's unlike any Alaska documentary you've seen," Chaney said. "It's not about Alaska wildlife or adrenaline junkies; it's about how two average people with almost no resources or expensive commercial gear who walk/paddle/ski through some of the most remote wilderness in North America. The viewer experiences the adventure through their eyes."

Given the prevalence of reality TV these days, perhaps it's no surprise that while the couple was walking from Cordova to Yakutat, they stumbled into a reality show being filmed, Chaney said.

"It was set up by people outside of Alaska," Chaney said. "The participants were from New York and, as a result, the whole reality show was very strange. The 'reality TV' show was more about perpetuating Alaskan myths than experiencing Alaska firsthand."

A few of the scenes in Chaney's film didn't make McKittrick's book. And even after months of editing the film, the director remains impressed by the couple's feat.

"My first reaction was to film the documentary with experts warning audience members 'not to try this at home' but I decided just to let the story unfold and allow the audience come to its own conclusions about whether Hig and Erin were sane or not," said the Juneau filmmaker. "I met them when they came through Juneau on their adventure and I thought they were going to die on the outer coast. I gave them one or two months to live, but they proved me wrong.

"So they have gained my complete respect."

Other Alaska-based outdoors films at the festival are funny, thoughtful or frightening. Here's a brief synopsis of ones that caught our eye. Check the festival's website for information on when the films screen. Some show twice, others just once.

Here is a sampling of the outdoors films at the Anchorage International Film Festival:

60 minutes, U.S.

"A Life Ascending"

Ruedi Beglinger is a world-renowned ski mountaineering guide who lives in a chalet he built high in the Selkirk Mountains of British Columbia. He lives there with his wife and two teen-age daughters. The only way in and out is by helicopter. Each week a group of ski mountaineers arrive to climb the extreme peaks and ski them.

Of Swiss descent, Belinger built an impeccable reputation over 25 years of guiding in North America as a highly controlled and disciplined mountaineer with incredible focus, legendary stamina and limited humor.

On Jan. 20, 2003, Belinger was guiding a large group of climbers when a massive avalanche buried 13 of them. After a frantic rescue operation, six of the buried skiers were saved and seven died including a member of his staff.

Shot in high definition over a two-year period beginning three years after the accident, the movie shows the toll the avalanche has taken on the family as well as how it brought them closer.

97 minutes, U.S.

"How to Survive"

Eli, a former Kodiak resident, leads three friends on a camping trip to a beautiful, remote location where the only reasonable way in or out is by floatplane. Inexplicably, the return plane does not come back to pick them up.

Dennis, an acknowledged city boy, tries to fit in as best he can while Jack becomes increasingly distraught about their predicament and his relationship with Susan. After Eli is injured, the stranded party makes a hasty decision to cross the rugged island.

Perilous travel through rough backcountry escalates their hardship. Susan's newly discovered pregnancy leaves her unsettled about her relationship with Jack and vulnerable to the rigors of their situation.

Emotional strife heightens as further injury hampers travel and increases tension in the party. As Eli's condition deteriorates, the group cannot resolve differing opinions on the best course of action. Unfortunately, by the time they learn how to survive, it is too late for some.

120 minutes, U.S.

"Journey on the Wild Coast"

Hig Higman and wife Erin McKittrick attempt to walk, paddle and ski under their own power from Seattle to the Aleutians along the wild and remote northwest coast of North America. This documentary was filmed with a tiny hand-held camera.

76 minutes, U.S.

"MUSH: The Movie"

More people have summited Mount Everest the past two years than have ever finished the Iditarod.

And yet, few people know the tremendous energy and effort that goes into the race. Without the participation of volunteers from all over the world, the Iditarod could not happen. "MUSH" takes a lighthearted look at the traditions and personalities that make the race possible and takes you behind the scenes of "The Last Great Race."

13 minutes, U.S.

"The Last Frontier"

This is the story you don't hear on "The Deadliest Catch" -- what's really going on in the Bering Sea. In 2005, roughly 75 percent of crab fishermen lost their jobs. This film chronicles Catch Share program and the fallout for individuals and Alaska communities. Most Alaska fishermen understand the need for conservation, but privatization threatens independent and family fishermen in coastal communities while encouraging large corporations and absentee owners. Many fishermen pay 70 to 80 percent of their season's profit to absentee quota holders -- a new type of owner who contributes little to the fishery. Catch Share programs are spreading -- and the system of privatizing then leasing shares will turn fishermen into modern-day sharecroppers. T

5 minutes, U.S.

"Tour de Seward"

Kristopher Peck is one of the best ultimate wheel riders in the world. Here he takes a tour of his hometown of Seward, exploring historic buildings, old fishing boats and bunkers.

11 minutes, U.S.

"Fernando and Boise"

Fernando Mollinedo and his dog Boise show us how it is possible to hunt for quail while respecting nature and the environment. A strong supporter of wetlands and waterfowl conservation, Fernando practices safe hunting in south Florida with his very alert friend, a Brittany dog suited for hunting and companionship. Fernando explains how he eats what he harvests, his close bond with Boise and the impact his wildlife conservancy approach has on the environment. Along the route, they meet a group of hunters and share stories and recipes.

7 minutes, Australia

"The Owl in the Snow"

Early in the 1900s, near the top of the world, a young lady was found sleepwalking on the ice. She had been kidnapped by an old scientist. Bound and gagged in his library, the lady slipped in and out of consciousness and dreamt of tales her grandmother once told her. And her dream became reality when the Owl, a mythical hero, appeared and freed her. This is the tale the lady told her daughters, who told theirs... Filmed on black-and-white 16mm film last winter in Alaska.

7 minutes, U.S.

"Out of Gas"

Original footage shot with a wind-up Bolex camera in the early 1970s as a student project at UAF, this satire was unearthed and completed recently using modern digital technology. While it still looks like a relic from the period, the theme of our human obsession with cars and the fuel that feeds them is as vivid as ever.