Adventure Travel Film Festival: Films we’ve screened are about as tough as it gets when it comes to pitting man against nature

When you’ve had your biscuits seized at gunpoint by Congolese soldiers, even the worst festival ‘crisis’ doesn’t seem insurmountable

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The Independent Culture

The DVDs just kept on coming. They were arriving with postmarks from India, Poland, Brazil, and all over Europe, the USA and Australia.

Incredible films of true-life derring-do were landing on our doormat at a startling rate, complete strangers were sending us links to obscure vintage travel documentaries and our friends were getting used to receiving the call, “You gotta see THIS!”. As the films piled up, the realisation dawned that we were sitting on a unique archive of stupendous, but essentially unknown, celluloid gold. Eventually, we reached the logical conclusion: “We should start a film festival.” Quickly followed by: “But not a normal film festival…”

Ten years earlier, I had left my job at the BBC to ride a small motorcycle a rather long way – from Alaska to Argentina. This resulted in the publication of my first book, Lois on the Loose, and an eventful career as a travel writer ensued. A few years later, I rode the length of Africa, crossing the Sahara, the Congo and Angola to reach Cape Town, spawning book number two.

I was married by this time, to a fellow adventurer, Austin Vince, the film-maker who created the cult adventure TV series Mondo Enduro in the 1990s for the Discovery Channel. Our mutual enthusiasm for DIY travel coupled with Austin’s love of film and passion for encouraging others to document their own adventures led to our letterbox becoming something of a magnet for adventure travel film-makers the world over. 

The idea of bringing together like-minded travellers and film-makers who shared an ethos of all things independent and lo-fi seemed like a fine plan. But most film festivals are city-centre affairs, spread across a few venues where the audience rarely gets to mingle beyond the cinema bar.

It seemed at odds with the spirit of the films we were being sent and also, with our own experiences of life on the road – where camping, open fires and camaraderie were the universal themes. So the plan was hatched to create a weekend knees-up with the atmosphere of a music festival but centred around films, adventure travel and the great outdoors.

The festival began, like all homespun ventures, in humble surroundings. Three hundred people showed up to a ramshackle outward-bound centre in Devon. Two people even came from Romania. We couldn’t believe it.

The camping field was covered in sheep droppings, there was no soap in the toilets and the films were screened in a hay barn. But in keeping with the gung-ho content, nobody complained and we all threw ourselves into the proceedings with gusto. Unsurprisingly, we moved to a new venue the following year but the spirit of friendship and community has continued and, for me, is the most rewarding element of the event.

Setting up and running a festival has been a steep and sometimes rocky learning experience, especially now that the festival has gone global with an Australian and American version.

The skills required are many and diverse but I found that my hotpotch career path – travel writer, production manager in the music department of the BBC, record-shop worker, painter and decorator – had unwittingly prepared me for this new world of extreme organisation, physical labour, manic activity and feather-smoothing.

When I left the BBC for an action-packed adventure, I had no idea that my life on the road was further preparing me for all sorts of tricky situations back in the “real world”. But when you’ve negotiated with corrupt border guards, had your biscuits seized at gunpoint by Congolese soldiers and dodged landmines in Angola, even the worst festival “crisis” doesn’t seem insurmountable.

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The films remain the stars of the show. After the first year, I had a momentary panic that we had peaked too early. The line-up had been stellar – 14 astounding movies including a beautifully filmed 16mm colour doc of a 1955 Land Rover expedition to Singapore, a haunting black-and-white portrait of American hobo train-hoppers, a hardcore 3,440-mile kayak trip through Siberia, and a super-rare psychedelic 1970s Central American road movie complete with drug-fuelled nude dirt-biking scene. How could we possibly top that?

But the films just kept on coming and not only new movies; the archives were rumbling with adventure, too. Who would have thought that in 1934 two British women had been the first people to travel overland from London to Cape Town – and had the presence of mind to capture it on film? Or that a pair of Iranian brothers motorcycled around the world in the 1950s and made mind-blowing anthropological documentaries? Or that the magic of the 1970s Hippie Trail had been captured by an off-duty BBC cameraman so that now, 40 years and many wars later, we could sit in a field and see in glorious 16mm colour that Kabul had once been a swinging hotbed of loon-panted groovers?

There are many pleasures associated with organising the Adventure Travel Film Festival, not least of which is the vast and varied number of people we meet in the process – and not just the film-makers and speakers who come each year to talk about their exploits.

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The audience of the ATFF is about as diverse and pleasingly hard to categorise as one can imagine. We’ve had 80-year-olds showing up on hand-built sidecar outfits, adventuring families in travel-battered saloon cars and globe-trotting pizza bike-riding teens – plus plenty of people who have no intention of going anywhere but simply have an appreciation for those who do.

As everyone rolls up on the Friday afternoon, I admit to taking a perverse pleasure from the fact that the demographic of the festival would flummox the most savvy marketeer – the only unifying theme is an enthusiasm for all things home-made, non-commercial and, ultimately, real.

Similarly, it is gratifying as a curator to be able to give exposure to films that would be dismissed by most mainstream TV commissioners. Not because the quality is poor (quite the opposite, in fact) but that the focus of TV travel and adventure programming has become clichéd and manufactured.

Independent film-makers have got used to hearing the predictable mantra: “We’re looking for something celebrity-led.” The tragedy is that the actual nitty-gritty of what it’s like to walk across Yemen with a camel or drive a ropey Trabant from Prague to Cape Town is of little interest to broadcasters. Fortunately, for us at the Adventure Travel Film Festival, this stuff is gold dust!

But in an age where celebrities are lauded for “adventures” that involve a team of support vehicles and specialist staff, and Bear Grylls reigns supreme, despite being rumbled for sneaking off to a hotel during a “wilderness” expedition, it seems there is an ever-increasing thirst for authenticity. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time and, as faith in the TV industry (not to mention other formerly exalted institutions) crumbles, there is something reassuring about real people wanting to connect with real stories.

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And it’s all pretty damn impressive. Films we’ve screened about canoeing the Congo River from source to sea, or walking alone across Australia are about as tough as it gets when it comes to pitting man against nature. But to construct an engaging narrative around it and turn it into a highly watchable film requires creativity, discipline and determination on a whole other level.

Sitting in the audience, watching someone paddling through crocodile-infested rapids while suffering from malaria, or seeing a man reduced to drinking rainwater from a puddle in the Australian desert, is fascinating in itself.

But if you remember that they also had to set up the camera, think about the lighting, set the correct focus and exposure, keep their kit free from damp and dust and the batteries charged – and then go back and pack the whole lot up again before continuing their journey – you can’t help but feel both humbled and inspired.

It’s not all jaw-dropping displays of true grit and death-defying terror, though. As well as the OMG factor, there are plenty of “Hey, I could do that!” moments, too. Inspiration finds many forms at the festival and it’s been especially heart-warming to see attendees from the first couple of years who took part in the film-making workshops coming back a few years later with films of their own that then become part of the schedule.

But maybe the last word should go to Judi Zebedee, an NHS physiotherapist who, after decades in the job, decided it was high time she rode her bicycle around the world. In her highly entertaining talk at last year’s festival, she was asked to describe how she felt when she arrived at the top of a Himalayan peak, with K2 glistening in the distance, and a 10,000ft ascent behind her. “I got off my bike and had a Lambert & Butler,” she said to a huge cheer from the audience.

Now, that is the true spirit of the Adventure Travel Film Festival.

Lois Pryce will be speaking about her recent solo ride around Iran at this year’s Adventure Travel Film Festival, 15-17 August, Sherborne Girls School, Sherborne, Dorset; adventuretravelfilmfestival.com

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