Sustainable storytelling: Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival celebrates 20 years | Movies

Magenet Magenet

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The Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival is back after a year of social distancing to celebrate 20 years of community, creativity and filmmaking.

The festival is a multi-day showcase of thought-provoking social, environmental and Indigenous-directed and produced documentary films from around the world. It features art exhibits, lively music and panel discussions, as well, all of which coalesce into an experience that seeks to amplify artistic expression and cinematic enjoyment, but it wasn’t always like this.

In the beginning, FMFF was a casual gathering of Canadian expats trying to recapture their sense of home in this small, far-away mountain town.

A sense of home

Annie Walton, the creative programming director of the festival, began her journey to Flagstaff as a downhill mountain bike racer in the 90s who realized there was a glaring omission in the genre of outdoor-adventure films. 

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“We never had films that showed women mountain biking,” Walton said. “It was always gnarly hucks…and we couldn’t really relate to that.”

In order to remedy this, Walton decided to produce her own film about the women she raced with. Dirt Divas, as she would eventually name it, broke many of the genre’s conventions; it was a story made by women, for women and about women, but it also caught the attention of fellow Canadian and Flagstaff resident, Geoff Cross.

Being such a fan of the film, Cross asked to show Dirt Divas at a local bike week event, and as fate would have it, Walton just happened to be preparing for a move to Flagstaff to support her partner’s post-doctoral pursuits.

 “I said, ‘I can let you show it, and I can present it because we’re moving down there.’ And that was the start of a beautiful friendship,” she said.

It was from this beautiful friendship that the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival would be born.

The two often reminisced about their favorite Canadian festivals like the Banff Mountain Film Festival and the Vancouver Film Festival until one night, at one of Cross’s parties they thought, “Why don’t we just make one here?”

Walton said, “this town is the right size and demographic for people to appreciate that stuff… and that’s how it all began.”

Growing pains

The first festival was a quiet, two-day event that only half filled the Orpheum, but every year since, the festival has grown tremendously, adding more programs, days and venues to host the growing number of participants.

One of the most important additions came in 2006, when John Tveten, the executive director of the festival, joined after becoming friends with Walton and Cross following a full moon ski at Snow Bowl.

“They basically said, ‘Hey, will you take this over?’” Tveten recalled, “And I said, ‘Sure,’ not knowing really anything about what it takes to run a festival.”

Despite his lack of festival-director knowledge, Tveten’s prior experience as a doctor in the ER and on Mount Everest prepared him for the pressure that this new challenge offered him. During his time with the festival, he has made it a vital facet of the Flagstaff community by securing grants, integrating educational programs and fostering many essential partnerships; however, one of his most difficult challenges was the pandemic.

In February of 2020, the 18th annual Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival barely squeaked in before shutdowns began the next month, and due to the persistent spread of new variants, Tveten, Walton, and the rest of the board decided to reduce the size of 2021’s festival and push it online.

For Tveten, it’s not really a festival if you’re at home watching it by yourself.

“The actual festival,” he said, “the actual getting together is really the vital aspect that makes it the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival.”

In this milestone year, the theme for FMFF will be “Coming together,” and Tveten sees that as an invitation to celebrate. 

“We have the opportunity to make it a festival again,” he said, “to get together because it makes a difference when you gather a few hundred people around these films and the stories these filmmakers tell. You have that discourse and that sharing, and to me, it’s not a festival without that.”

The future of the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival

When the festival first started, Walton saw it as a place to expose people to a wide variety of film types and make it affordable. “We wanted to be able to show an eclectic mix of films that your average Joe Blow wouldn’t go see,” she said.

For Tveten, the festival has always been about “being a canvas more for filmmakers who are just establishing themselves.” He said. “There’s not a lot of rewards in regards to compensation. It’s a labor of love telling these real stories and to honor that labor is why we keep doing it.”

Together, the pair has preserved the parts of the festival that make it so important to the audience and filmmakers who participate, but after 20 years of success, the festival is closing in on a turning point.

“John and I have put a lot of years into it,” Walton said, “and we’re probably ready for somebody else to steer the ship a little bit.” 

She is confident that if the right person comes along, whoever it is will be able to carry the festival further into the future, to allow it to evolve past what they’ve already done.

Both Walton and Tveten are surprised that the festival has lasted two decades, and they are grateful to the people who have supported them each and every year.

“I feel super happy that a very committed group of people have kept it going,” Walton said, “They do the bulk of the work, the groundwork, and it’s all volunteer hours and hundreds of volunteer hours. So they have kept it alive, it really gives you that warm fuzzy feeling.”

Though the long-term future of the festival seems uncertain, it will return this year with a slate of films that highlight the importance of learning about our world and the necessity of film in a rapidly changing culture.

“These stories are bigger than all those other challenges,” Tveten said. “The festival sustains itself because it’s needed.”

The Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival begins on April 7 and ends on April 10. Visit www.flagstaffmountainfilms.org to learn more about the film lineup, showtimes and venues.

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