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The Show Goes On

The Boulder Adventure Film Festival enters year five this weekend, months after its founder died climbing in China.

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Last May, Jonny Copp, founder of the Boulder Adventure Film Festival and an expert climber, along with his partners Micah Dash, an accomplished mountaineer, and filmmaker Wade Johnson, traveled to western China to tackle a first ascent on the east face of Mt. Edgar. They left base camp on May 20. Nobody would hear from them again. After the climbers missed their flight home, a search for the trio started on June 3. A rescue team of American and Chinese climbers with a combined resume full of Himalayan expeditions, Everest summits, and Patagonian and Alaskan climbs discovered the bodies of Copp and Johnson among debris of an avalanche on June 11. Although some of Dash’s gear was found at the scene, the weeklong search didn’t turn up his body and was called off due to the dangerous conditions on the mountain.

Last week, I went to meet Mark Reiner, a lifelong buddy of Jonny Copp and the director of the Adventure Film Festival, an annual event that takes place in Boulder, Colorado. Reiner helped Copp start the festival in 2005 as a way to give adventure filmmakers a chance to share their work. Reiner lived in California the first few years of the festival, but flew out two months before the event to help Copp run the show. A few years ago, he moved to Boulder. He and Copp got an office, officially became business partners, and Reiner started working on the festival full time. In 2008, the Boulder festival expanded to include events in Chamonix and Chile. As it continues to expand, Reiner hopes to take the show to places like South Africa, India, Australia, and Antarctica.

Tucked inside a building full of realty offices, the Adventure Film headquarters feels small. There are two desks with computers and shelves with enough DVDs to make me feel ashamed of my modest collection. Reiner is talking with a friend and working on his Macbook when I show up at 4:03 p.m. The interview was set up for 4—he kids me about being three minutes late. Reiner, who’s in his early 30s, is wearing khaki shorts, a baseball hat, and a pair of slip-on cloth shoes that look like something a California surfer would wear. He offers me some Bailey’s, which I consider for a second, but turn him down; I don’t want to end up even a little loopy, struggling to remember the important questions I came here to ask.

I want to ask him how they decide on three-dozen movies from hundreds of submissions, what role skiing has played in the festival, what excites him most about this year’s event, how did the Boulder festival end up with offshoots in Chamonix and Chile. And most importantly, I want to ask Reiner about a film playing this weekend titled First Accent: Point of No Return, which is about the avalanche in China and the three men who lost their lives. I want to ask him how the death of his childhood friend, climbing companion, and business partner affected the festival. But these tough ones can’t be my first questions. I’ve never met Reiner before and want to find a polite way to bring them up.

Reiner shows me an e-mail open on his computer with all the festival’s vital information: times, dates, descriptions of films. It’s taken him a year to put the festival together; he’s proud of it and eager to share the information with me. The first line of the e-mail reads: “Yeeeeeow….clock is tickin’ and there is SOOOOOO much good information to get out there!!!” It’s followed by links to tickets, movie trailers, and a few of the featured guests. I consider interrupting and asking one of my questions, but it doesn’t feel like the right time yet. I want to let him finish what he’s saying.

As I’m looking over his shoulder I notice he has 308 unread e-mails. I crack a quick joke about it.

“Yeah, welcome to my world, it’s film fest season,” he says. For a second he sounds like he’s ready for the festival and everything that goes with it to end—the planning, the e-mails, the phone calls, the interviews. And when I ask him later what he’s looking forward to most about the festival, the first thing he says is “about it being over.” He glances down at my recorder after he says it. He wants to make sure I know he’s kidding. And he is. Reiner would do anything he can to make the festival a success.

“On November 15, when the film festival is done, there’s not a single thing I, or anyone can do to make the festival better. But right now there’s everything that I can do,” he says. “Every single moment counts. If I get done with things to make the festival better before hand, I come up with more things to do.”

I ask him how they select the films. He explains to me that a group of about a dozen people spend one day a week all summer watching the hundreds of submissions in order to chop the collection down to 32. They use one-page scoring sheets to judge a film based on seven different categories, including camerawork, originality, and story telling. They eat and drink while they watch the films, but there isn’t much talking—it’s a secret-ballot type process, Reiner says.

Four ski movies made this year’s cut. There’s Signatures, which is full of April powder in Japan, Winter’s Wind, a Chamonix-based film that considers why we ski, Swift. Silent. Deep., a flick about the Doug Coombs-era of big-mountain skiing at Jackson Hole, and there’s a movie about one of the deepest winters on record in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains called The Ripple Effect. All four have at least two things in common: They’re about skiing, but they’re not traditional ski porns.

“The films we choose are not films about people hucking themselves off a cliff to fast music,” Reiner says. “Although we do include films like that as part of the entire program, it’s not about ‘come to the Adventure Film Festival and see people on the edge of death all the time.’ It’s less about just being gnarly and more cerebral.”

Signatures is one of the festival’s opening night films and the movie’s main character, Japanese snowsurfer Taro Tamai, is flying from Japan to be in attendance, and is bringing one of his hand-carved snowboards with him.

I’m still thinking about how to ask him about the China film. I don’t want to be intrusive. As he goes over his everything-about-the-festival e-mail, he gets to a blurb about First Accent: Point of No Return. He brings it up and starts talking about it. I’m relieved. But he doesn’t say much; he’s getting ready to move on and mention about the next thing on the list. This is my chance. I interrupt him. “I wanted to ask you about that,” I say. And I do.

He pauses for a second, then tells me about his friendship with Copp. How they’ve known each other since they were 10 years old, were “best buds” in junior high school, built skateboard ramps together as kids, learned to climb together at Joshua Tree, went to college together, and ran this business together. Then he tells me this: “The festival itself is not necessarily a memorial, we’ve had five. This is the film festival and at the film festival will be a film about what happened in China,” Reiner says. “It’s a world premiere and a National Geographic episode. It’s a half hour long. They’ll be some obvious discussion before and after that film about it and some continued tribute.” And there, as simple as that, I found my answer. After that, we move on and talk about other things. []