The Adventure

Where are the Women in Adventure Films?

Posted by Topher Donahue on Thu, Dec 23, 2010

A recent thread on the Banff Mountain Centre's Facebook page asks the question: Where are the women in adventure films?   We all know there are artistic, visionary women out there who could produce award-winning documentaries as well as women who are visionary athletes who also have colourful, inspiring lives that would be great subjects of adventure films.  elcapitan girls adventure

Take Heidi Wirtz and Vera Schulte-Pelkum for example.  (Shown here after breaking the women’s speed record on the Nose of El Capitan.)  Heidi runs Girls Ed International, a non-profit that supports educational opportunities for young women in remote and undeveloped regions of the world.  Vera is a seismologist who studies the interior structure of the earth through the massive data provided by earthquakes.  Climbing is what they do for fun, and they prefer it to be fun rather than dangerous.  Unfortunately, for now, nobody is making adventure films about fun.  

A couple of years ago Heidi and Vera travelled to Germany and the Czech Republic to make a film about the unusual climbing culture in that part of the world.  The resulting film, The Sharp End, featured Heidi and Vera as distant sideshows, but the meat of the film was about men pushing their limits in the danger zone.  The Sharp End is a thrilling, award-winning, edge-of-your seat viewer experience.  Nobody complained.  But nobody could relate.

Majka Burhardt is a modern-day explorer with experience as a producer, athlete, and promoter of adventure.  She produced the film Waypoint Namibia about a climbing adventure in Africa in 2009 and had this to say about women and filmmaking:

“Responsibility (for lack of a better word) manifests in a different risk tolerance -- for some. So to in turn create films that take a lot of money, a lot of time, a lot of a gamble, that is massive risk. Add to that that many of the films in the true adventure section (or what film festivals deems as "true adventure," another conversation entirely) are films that depict people doing increasingly radical things.”

That’s the problem.  Contemporary adventure media is really good at producing exciting footage with excellent camera work.  It’s not so good at tapping into everyman’s (or woman’s) experience.  Right now the biggest hits in adventure film are all about the most outrageous, dangerous experiences the planet has to offer.

In the thread, Liz Howell gives kudos to Warren Miller for featuring women in every segment of Wintervention, and a lot of films do involve women at all levels - but most adventure films productions are still dominated by men filming men doing things that no responsible person would ever do.  My take on it is that men are just better at doing dangerous things, and right now adventure media rewards those who film people doing dangerous things.  Do you think any woman would consider starring in Jackass?

Majka adds, “On the bright side -- this might change more and more with the process for filming-- the short, on-the-spot, of-the-moment film projects are taking off, allowing creativity and perspective to replace some of the death-defying stunt factor. I'll be curious to see what effect this trend has on who produces the films.”

Just as with any media, people get used to the norm and then crave something different.  Sooner or later, people will get tired of watching men doing more complicated tricks with big risk, and they’ll want to see films that dig into the power of adventure and why it is so appealing to the human spirit.

Until then, enjoy the thrills of modern adventure media, go on your own dream adventures; and you women out there with a talent for storytelling and film production, know that we're all waiting for your take on the world of adventure.

Photo by Topher Donahue

Tags: Adventure Travel, ski film, Skiing, Banff, Warren Miller