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Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 22 October 2011

IMMEDIATELY after announcing the winner of the Best Film award at the Edinburgh Mountain Film Festival (EMFF) earlier this month, event organiser Stevie Christie felt compelled to reassure his audience that the capital’s annual celebration of extreme sports cinema was NOT about to turn into the “Edinburgh Fishing Film Festival.” It wasn’t hard to see why he might have been feeling a little uneasy. Audiences at the EMFF tend to be composed mostly of hardcore climbers and mountaineers, and while they’ll tolerate the odd kayaking film here, the odd skiing film there, what they really come to see are state-of-the-art climbing flicks – films that show men and women with nerves of steel and sinews of industrial strength rubber pushing the limits of what’s humanly possible on sheer cliffs and icy mountainsides, where even the tiniest mistake could mean certain death. What they don’t come to see, by and large, are films about fishing.

But against the odds, and with a flagrant disregard for market forces, this year’s coveted Best Film gong went to… Eastern Rises, the tale of a group of Americans, some exhibiting – how to put this tactfully? – sub-optimal levels of physical fitness, who use ex-military helicopters to go fly fishing in Kamchatka, in Russia’s stunningly beautiful and largely uninhabited far east. These fishermen are in no way typical of the serious-minded athletes usually featured in EMFF films. They get thrown out of Red Square for larking about with their fishing rods, they drink unhealthy amounts of vodka with the locals, and one of their number becomes increasingly convinced that he’s being stalked by the Russian equivalent of the sasquatch – a paranoia fuelled by his buddies, who take it in turns to run through the bushes wearing a gorilla costume just to freak him out. Imagine a cross between Jackass: The Movie and Apocalypse Now, only with rainbow trout instead of Viet Cong, and you’re in more or less the right ballpark.

So how did this bizarre-sounding movie ever win an award at the EMFF? Well, once again this year I was lucky enough to be on the seven-man judging panel so – with Stevie’s permission – I’m now allowed to tell you how we arrived at what must have seemed to the festival audience like a wilfully eccentric decision.

The first thing to say is that the EMFF jury dishes out two bits of silverware every year: the award for Best Film and the award for Best Climbing Film. The decision on the latter was easy – after very little debate, it went to Alone on the Wall, a frankly mind-blowing film about young US climbing prodigy Alex Honnold, who scaled the intimidating, 2,000ft northwest face of Half Dome in California’s Yosemite National Park with no ropes – just him and his little bag of chalk. Heart-in-mouth stuff – a clear winner, and for a moment it seemed that Alone on the Wall was going to scoop the Best Film award too, but then Rob Bushby of the John Muir Trust went out on a limb and spoke up for Eastern Rises. In terms of physical achievement, he agreed, nothing could touch Alone on the Wall, but as a piece of filmmaking, the fish film was superior – the cinematography was spectacular, the narration was sharp and funny, and even if you weren’t a keen fisherman (which none of us was) you still got a real sense of what made the sport (or pastime – but let’s not get into that debate here) so exciting for these prankster Yanks. From that point on it all went a bit 12 Angry Men, but in a very polite, good-natured way. The climbers on the panel dug their heels in to begin with. Reuben Welch, who runs Edinburgh’s Alien Rock climbing wall, spent much of the evening with his head in his hands, whimpering “A fishing film can’t win!” But in the end even Reuben acquiesced. If you’re thinking of entering a fishing film for the EMFF next year though, don’t expect to win a prize – lightning never strikes twice.

CONGRATULATIONS once again to the intrepid Helen Rennie (aka Hilly) who has just celebrated her 24th consecutive month of skiing on Cairn Gorm. Last October, you may remember, she became the first woman to ski in Scotland for 12 months on the trot. Well, at the start of this month, thanks to some early snow, she made it two years and counting. Bodes well for this winter…

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