‘BEYOND THE DOOM AND GLOOM’ – A CHAT WITH CANADIAN FILMMAKER, GRANT BALDWIN

Ahead of his attendance at EFFA 2019 for a ‘Meet the Maker’ session for his new film, and an Industry Insider session, we chat with Canadian filmmaker Grant Baldwin about exploring your physical limits, using drones and the power of humour in creating environmental documentaries!

Why do you think documentaries are a particularly influential medium for generating environmental awareness and behavioural change, and what direction do you see environmental documentaries taking in the future, given the current state of the world around us?

 Documentarians spend years crafting a film to bring a message or issue to the forefront. The audience only needs to spend 90 minutes in a chair to be entertained while absorbing new information. I suppose the medium’s efficiency and ability to stir emotion explains why it’s perhaps the best influence on positive messaging. Documentaries work on me! 

Your documentaries The Clean Bin Project and Just Eat It: A Food Waste Storypositively influenced people around the world to reduce their garbage and food waste respectively. Why do you think these documentaries generated such an impact, and have you managed to maintain your own commitment to reducing waste, as was the premise of these films?  

I think those films hit home for people because they actually felt like they could take personal action based on films’ messaging. The tone in both wasn’t all doom and gloom, and there is some humour, mostly at my expense! :(  

How did you become involved in your new film, This Mountain Life, and how did the challenges that Martina and Tania Halik encounter on their 2,300-kilometre journey through British Columbia help shape the film?

I emigrated from England to Canada when I was young, and the mountains have shaped my life. This Mountain Life is a love letter to BC mountains in a way. Martina and Tania are the second team ever to attempt the Coast Mountain Traverse. Using the maps from the first team who completed this trek in 2002, Martina and Tania tried to repeat the path, but the glaciers had changed so much in that time they had to route plan on the fly. This and the low snowpack in the north that year made things nearly impossible.

This Mountain Lifesees you encounter many different people - a retreat of nuns seeking to be closer to God, a snow artist, an alpinist, and a couple living off the grid - all bound by their connection to place, nature and mountain. Did you pre-plan who you would interview, or did you discover these people and adapt along the way? 

I wanted to show diversity in the mountains. 

We reached out to the mountain community by word of mouth to find everyone.  It wasn’t hours scouring the internet, it was an organic experience. The characters all seem to have one thing in common. They thrive and find comfort in a place where most would feel it’s inhospitable. 

A highlight of This Mountain Life is its stunning cinematography. Do you believe contemporary technologies in film, such as drones, have enabled environmental filmmakers to create a more visceral experience for audiences by visually showing them the ‘whole picture’?

Drones are an amazing tool. We carried two kinds with us depending on the terrain; a big one for the flatter sections, and a tiny one for the technical spots. They were a way for us to show scale.  The shots don’t always have to be moving, instead our characters would move through the frame. We used them holding position, like a tripod in the sky.  I think they are a tool to use sparingly. If you use many drone shots back-to-back, you lose the impactful image you began with. 

A large portion of filming in backcountry mountains is undertaken to advertise snow brands and often only reaches snow sports enthusiasts. Did this genre impact your approach towards making This Mountain Life?

I’ve worked in promoting skiing and outdoor clothes while filming professional skiing, I’ve been able to travel to amazing places and meet incredible people. This Mountain Life isn’t a thing like that work. I chose to film those who would never be picked to promote a ski brand. I wanted those diverse characters to get a chance to share their story. $0 came from any brands, this was a public broadcaster production and I’m so proud of that. This is a movie for people who don’t usually watch mountain movies.

You wear many hats - cinematographer, writer, director, editor and composer - in your filmmaking process. What are the challenges and opportunities of such a multidisciplinary approach?

Time - you can’t be in two places at once! Our films just take longer to make. The advantage is you have nobody to blame if things go sideways - you power through it.

You’ve also worked on the BBC’s iconic series, Planet Earth. What’s been the most life-changing footage you’ve ever captured?

 I can’t say yet, as BBC’s 7 Worlds comes out this Christmas. We filmed some behaviour of polar bears never captured before. Can’t wait to hear David Attenborough’s narration over it. ;)

In addition to speaking at EFFA’s ‘Meet the Maker’ Q&A after our screening of This Mountain Life, you’re also presenting at our Industry Insider session. What are you looking forward to sharing with EFFA’s industry audience and documentary fans alike?

 I like to talk about how small we are as a production team, myself and my partner Jenny Rustemeyer (producer) - how we have made mistakes, and how we have learned and moved on together. I have some fun stories to share. ;) 

What’s the main message you want audiences to take away after watching This Mountain Life?
No matter your age or gender, what you think your personal physical and mental limits are, they are most likely not. Breaking past that threshold is liberating. Get out there.

What’s your next project?

We are completing a five-part TV series on Canada’s busiest 100% volunteer mountain search and rescue, North Shore Rescue.

We went on every call out for one year. It was a rollercoaster of emotions.

Hear from Grant firsthand at EFFA’s screening of This Mountain Life, 6.15pm Tuesday 29 October at Cinema Nova, and at our Industry Insider session, Shoot, Score and Edit with Impact – In Conversation with Grant Baldwin, State Library Victoria, 2.30pm Sunday 27 October.

These sessions and Grant’s attendance at EFFA were made possible with the support of the High Commission of Canada.