Valhalla - A Review
I've written this statement before, but I watch a lot of adventure films as part of my job. Usually between two and three hundred each year, possibly more. So it take something special to stand out from the crowd and raise the standard. Every year however, one or two films come along that do just this. Last week I was lucky enough to watch a screener of Valhalla. I've loved every single film that Sweetgrass have produced. I met the producer on a trip out to Banff a few years back and he's an ordinary looking fellow, talks about the usual stuff, drinks the usual drinks and eats the usual food. But put him in charge of a ski film and he does some quite unusual things. His name is Nick Waggoner, and I don't for one second think that he is the sole captain in charge of the ship that is Sweetgrass, but he's definitely pulling the strings so I'm going to single him out for some praise.
Sweetgrass's last film, Solitaire, was an epic that documented big-mountain back-country skiing all over the continent of South America. The staggering thing about the film was the fact that no helicopters had been used in its making. I'm not going to sit on my horse and preach that film festivals should only support production companies and sponsors who adopt such lofty principles, but that doesn't stop me from admiring those that do, and singling them out as shining examples. At last year's ShAFF we screened a series of short video diaries on the making of Solitaire as the were gems in their own right, worthy of a wider audience, but we weren't able to show an actual film of theirs as they were busy making another epic by the name of Valhalla.
In Norse mythology Valhalla is a majestic, enormous hall located in Asgard, ruled over by the god Odin. It's a place where heroes who have fallen in battle go to after death. Sweetgrass's take on the enormous hall is a film of grand ambition. Where other films fall well and truly into the eye candy mould, blowing our minds with amazing footage, but brushing any driving narrative under the rug, Valhalla combines the two. Instead of a real-life story, perhaps following an amazing season of powder, or a death defying escape from an avalanche, Valhalla is pure fiction. The grand hall itself is a camp in the woods, quite literally a small collection of hammocks and teepees, layered in snow and decorated in prayer flags. The fallen heroes are a rag-tag band of supremely good hippy skiers. The film follows one central character, Conrad, in his quest to rediscover the innocent joy of seeing and feeling snow for the first time as a child.
Sounds a little arty doesn't it. But somehow it works! Listening to the narration is an absolute joy and a lesson to all filmmakers in the fact that choosing the right voice-over is absolutely vital. The prose itself is poetic, but entirely comprehendable, the sort of stuff you want to write down and remember, the sort of stuff you dream of coming up with yourself! There's a segment featuring entirely naked skiers (save for their avalanche transceivers which made me chuckle) which will surely have audiences around the world belly laughing and wincing at the same time. There's a party scene that's so well done that I found myself feeling drunk just watching it. Sweetgrass have always pushed the boat out when it comes to their choice of music and Valhalla is no exception with tracks from the likes of Fleet Foxes and Rodriguez (of Searching For Sugar Man fame). But most importantly there's sublime skiing by the bucketload.
It's very hard to sum up just what makes it so good. Perhaps it should suffice that it's so good I've already watched it twice.
Valhalla will get its UK premiere at the Buxton Adventure Festival on November 3rd. If anybody is interested in organising a screening then let me know as I am hoping to arrange a few on behalf of Sweetgrass.