In January, the Explorer’s Club opened its wrought-iron doors to crowds of freezing New Yorkers, who trekked through snowy sidewalks and single-digit temperatures to attend the opening night of the New York WILD Film Festival. The brainchild of Nancy Rosenthal, a former filmmaker for National Geographic Television, NYWFF was created to bring “all things wild to one of the most urban places in the world.”
Over two days, the festival screened 14 documentaries, in a showcase of films aimed to move, inform and inspire. Though only in its first year, the event boasted big-name sponsors including Dos Equis, National Geographic (who provided free lip balm), The North Face and KIND Bars.
Entering the foyer of the 109-year-old Explorer’s Club felt something like crashing the headquarters of a secret Ivy League society, albeit one with a distinctly anthropological bent. Walls paneled in dark wood were punctuated by huge Gothic windows of delicate stained glass. Spoils of past expeditions occupied every available surface — enormous elephant tusks adorning the lobby fireplace, and the first sledge ever taken to the North Pole hangs in the screening room. On the second floor, a giant stuffed polar bear (donated by Rudolph Valentino) loomed over guests as they nibbled on appetizers and sipped wine from an open bar. One almost expected Teddy Roosevelt or Edmund Hillary to walk in at any minute, stopping to pick up a mini slider and a beer.
The inaugural evening featured two affecting films, followed by lively and informative Q&A sessions. At 7 PM, the mingling crowd was ushered into the Clark Room, where the flag of Roy Chapman Jr. — “the real life Indiana Jones,” according to the Explorer’s Club former president Robert Wiese — hung prominently. The program began with an address by Rosenthal, who quickly handed over the mic to Wiese, the emcee. A genial host, Weise was eager to underscore the natural connection between explorers and storytellers.
“Part of exploring is getting to come back and say, ‘Guess what I just saw?'” he said. “The heart of exploration is bridging cultural understanding.” After a screening of the festival’s trailer, a blur of predictably intense and beautiful nature shots, the lights dimmed and the first film began.
The Sensei (directed by Josh Rosen, Nick Lowell and Peter Mortimer) is the story of Japanese rock climbing legend Yuji Hiroyama and his unlikely protégé, Daniel Woods, a 20-something from Richardson, Texas. The two first cross paths at a Japanese rock climbing competition, which, with its fluorescent walls, pulsing strobe lights and screaming crowds, looks more like a rave than a sporting event. The climbing scene in Japan is huge, and Hiroyama is a rock star. Woods, on the other hand, is introduced as a goofy, chilled-out kind of dude — floppy hair, lopsided grin and laconic drawl (“I just learned how to say ‘cool’ in Japanese,” he marvels). But Woods wins the competition, quickly and decisively. Woods, we find out, is one of the strongest climbers in the world. Scrawny looking when drowning in an extra-large sweatshirt, the Texan is pure muscle and sinew as he eases his way along a sheer rock face without ropes or harnesses. It’s his performance at the festival, along with one further test of skill, that convinces Hiroyama, the veteran climber, to take his new pupil along on his next climb, one of personal significance.
Kinabalu, a mountain on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, bested Hiroyama several years before. Now in middle age (though one would never guess the climber was 46, due to his tan, wrinkleless skin and preference for hoodies and snapbacks), he worries his chances of summiting the rock face are quickly waning. On the peaks of Kinabalu, the differences in Hiroyama and Woods’ experience are thrown into sharp relief. Though their entire crew is well outfitted, Daniel has forgotten, among other crucial supplies, to bring sunscreen. We see his face break out in red and purple splotches, blistering painfully under his patchy new facial hair. But every morning, he’s smiling, and every day his new routes up the rock faces are captured in tight, macro shots, as well as wide-swinging panoramas of Kinabalu’s incredible granite spires.
Eventually, both Hiroyama and Woods make it to the top, with Hiroyama finally mastering the route he had set years before, and Woods blazing a new, impossibly quick ascent up the mountain. The thrill of their success is heightened by the lush, incredible footage of Borneo and the landscape surrounding Kinabalu. White clouds billow amid an orange and purple sunset, while bolts of lightning pulse in the background; mist sweeps over a blue and green valley in a gorgeous time lapse.
The film has elements of a kind of East-meets-West narrative, as well as an archetypical mentor-mentee relationship (the requisite Karate Kid references are made by both Woods and Hiroyama, who can’t resist referring to his apprentice as “Daniel-San”). But at the heart of The Sensei is a true bromance, a friendship founded in mutual respect and unhindered by disparities in culture or skill. This cross-cultural and generational harmony came as a surprise to the filmmakers, who had no idea going into the project whether the two would hit it off—or if Woods would even win the competition that initially brought them together.
“It was nice that Daniel won, for sure,” laughed Alex Lowther, an editor and producer on the film. The pair’s outcome at Kinabalu was also an unknown variable at the time of shooting. Lowther and his fellow filmmakers, Nick Rosen, Josh Lowell and Peter Mortimer, had previously produced films featuring climbers who hadn’t quite reached their goals, and as Lowther noted, “Sometimes failure is more interesting than success.” In the case of The Sensei, however, the duo’s triumph in the mountains of Borneo was unquestionably satisfying — an uplifting story bolstered by breathtaking cinematography.
The Last Ocean
In one particularly memorable montage from The Last Ocean, director Peter Young and his crew take to the streets of New York for a brief pedestrian Q&A.
“Do you know where the Ross Sea is?” asks Young in a strong Kiwi accent.
“R-O-S-S? Ross Sea?” barks a passerby. “Never heard of it. Is it on the East side or West side of New York City?”
In reality, the Ross Sea lies 9,000 miles south of Manhattan, surrounding the continent of Antarctica, and is the most pristine marine ecosystem on Earth. Thanks to the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, the Antarctic continent itself is the world’s largest nature preserve, intended to be left virtually untouched by humans except in cases of scientific research. Unfortunately, the sea around it—which provides a home to 40% of the world’s penguin population, as well as rare killer whales and seals—did not fall under the Treaty’s protection.
Over the past decade, the discovery of the very ugly, very slow Antarctic toothfish — rebranded as “Chilean Seabass” and marketed to upscale restaurants the world over — has lured increasing numbers of industrial fishing boats to the sea’s previously unadulterated waters. Their presence severely threatens the balance of the Earth’s last undisturbed ecosystem, and has produced serious geopolitical issues, in addition to startling environmental implications. The film features interviews with scientists Sylvia Earle, Glen Ballard and David Ainley, all of whom stressed the importance and extreme urgency of preserving the Ross Sea and its tenuous ecosystem. Said Earle, who was once named TIME Magazine’s Hero of the Planet, “We should protect it like our lives depend on it — because they do.”
The film was originally created to support a campaign (also called “The Last Ocean”) created by Young, photographer John Weller,and Ainley, who has studied climate change in the Antarctic for the past 30 years. Ainley describes the Ross Sea as a “living laboratory,” invaluable to our understanding the way the Earth naturally functions.
“In the Ross Sea, you can guess how things should be,” said Ainley during the film’s Q&A session, where he received two standing ovations. “But how can you study climate change when the entire ecosystem is being irrevocably altered?”
Young, the director, was especially driven to produce the film because his homeland of New Zealand was the first nation to introduce fishing boats to Antarctic waters.
“New Zealand is a country of 4 million people, and we have been saying that we’re ‘clean and green’ to the rest of the world for many years,” said Young. “And we were sneaking down to the Ross Sea to do this. No one knew about it in New Zealand. It was quite a revelation to the people here.”
Thanks to the campaign, the team has been able to raise significant awareness about the Ross Sea’s predicament, and affect real change regarding the distribution of the toothfish. Both Safeway and Whole Foods have refused to carry the fish, and many restaurants that once featured “Chilean seabass” have quietly removed it from their menus. But the problem is far from solved.
“If they stopped fishing right now, it would probably take another 100 years for the toothfish population to reach equilibrium,” said Ainley, becoming visibly choked up. “It’s the last low-hanging fruit in the Garden of Eden.”
The next New York WILD Film Festival is scheduled for February 5-7, 2015. The Sensei is available to buy and download at bigupproductions.com. The Last Ocean continues to screen at festivals around the world and is available to rent or download. Visit thelastoceanfilm.com for more information about the film and campaign.