Banff is a tiny mountain town in the Canadian Rockies. Like our own community, it’s a popular tourist destination, known to draw people who love outdoor activities of all stripes. But other than that, it’s way more South Park than Santa Cruz, surrounded by ski resorts and known for a gondola ride that actually goes somewhere other than across a theme park.

And yet, a large percentage of people who live here probably know the name of this little village 1,300 miles to the north of them. That’s because Banff’s famed adventure-sports film festival has been touring here for two decades, and selling out Santa Cruz faster and faster of late. It’s been so popular that this year, as the entertainment circuit in general stubbornly refuses to recover from the recession, the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour is expanding in Santa Cruz from two to three days (Feb. 22-24 at the Rio).

The festival has been successful here for so long now that the match seems like a no-brainer. But actually, it’s not because of dumb luck, or even just some natural affinity locals have always had for high-adrenaline short films about extreme sports. (In the much larger and equally athletic San Francisco market, the tour runs for two days, and even at some outdoors-obsessed California stops it only plays for one.)

No, the real reason the Banff Film Festival tour has grown up with Santa Cruz over the last 20 years is Kathy O’Hara Ferraro of UCSC’s Recreation Department. Initially just lending a hand here and there when UCSC first began presenting the festival’s tour in the early ’90s, Ferraro’s involvement grew until she took over producing the tour here in 1998.

She began traveling to the film festival in Banff every year, absorbing as many films as she could. She studied audience reactions and networked relentlessly with other tour presenters, and with the producers, filmmakers and athlete stars of the films that were showing. Individual presenters get to pick which films from the festival they’ll show at their own tour stop each year (as long as every film is licensed to tour), and gradually, she began to build a better and better program of films for each new event. She learned which ones to bring back to Santa Cruz, based on which sports audiences here responded most to, and the uniquely diverse kinds of films they wanted to see. Locals, in turn, responded by packing the festival, and Ferraro eventually had to expand from showing the films on campus to booking multiple days at the Rio.

Peter Mortimer, the acclaimed rock climbing and mountaineering filmmaker who in the mid-2000s co-founded the Reel Rock Film Tour, calls Ferraro’s work as a film-festival organizer “amazing.” He says she’s played a key role in the huge growth of adventure sports films over the last decade.
“Our whole film-tour model is based on people like Kathy, who are connected to the community, and get people to come out and see the films,” says Mortimer. “Without them, there’s no link between us and the audience.”

Such a link is crucial for these kinds of films, because film festivals like this are often the only places they are ever shown. Some of the films feature athletes or filmmakers who are well known within their own sporting community, but for the more mainstream Santa Cruz audience that attends, it’s not the individual short films that are the draw. It’s the Banff brand, and Ferraro’s track record as a programmer.

“Audiences really trust her,” says Mortimer. “She’s earned that trust year after year.”

 

Learning the Ropes

Few have gotten to see Ferraro’s role in the annual event grow over the years like her family. Her 18-year-old son Sean is now in Portland studying graphic design, but his stint making mountain biking short films earlier in his teens would seem to have been heavily influenced by his mom’s work. He’s grown up with Banff, literally, and claims to remember her working the door at Banff screenings in Santa Cruz when he was as young as four. He’s also gone to the festival with her in Canada six times.
Sean says there are two basic reasons for her success with Banff.

“She’s just very dedicated to what she does,” he says. “And she’s always loved the outdoors, since she was a kid. She wasn’t coming from an outsider perspective.”

For that reason, it could be said that the story of Ferraro’s involvement with the Banff Film Festival didn’t even start in Santa Cruz. But it did start nearby, in places like Big Basin, Stevens Creek Canyon, Año Nuevo, the Chalk Mountains, the Baylands and Mount Tam. Those were all places Ferraro took middle-schoolers for two-week backpacking trips, which she did for three summers in the early ’80s. It was the first time she saw what a little outdoor adventure could do for someone.

“Some of our trips started with a high-ropes course,” remembers Ferraro. “I always consider myself to be real chicken. And here are these kids—11, 12, 13, 14—we put them on a high-ropes course. And the confidence those kids gained was astounding. Like, ‘I can do this.’ Some of them had never hiked more than two miles, and now they’re carrying a backpack with all their food, and hiking six miles a day. To see the growth in their confidence, and their connection to the outdoors, was amazing.”

At that point, she decided for good what she wanted to do with her life.

“It was instrumental in me setting my path: I wanted to work in the outdoors. That was where I felt like all my skills were—my desire to be active and outdoors, my ability to connect with people, and also be positive, and then I had the organizational skills for dealing with 10 to 12 kids for two weeks.”

 

Guided Path

Those trips led to her being asked by a local bike shop to lead weekend trips for “high-end clients who bought their high-end bikes.” After that, she took a leadership course, which further boosted her career as a bike and backpacking tour guide.
To this day, she gets questions from UCSC students who dream of that life, figuring they’ll be getting paid to ride their bike 50 miles a day. That isn’t entirely true, since on most trips Ferraro was also pitching tents, fixing bikes, cooking meals and more. And yet, it was a good match for her skills, and she continued her career as a guide for a decade, working weekends and summers after she took her job at UCSC.

“It is fun,” she says of the tour-guide life. “If you have that Puritan work ethic, you gotta work, right? But then you’re in these amazing places, and you’re getting paid to travel places you wouldn’t on your own. Then it works really well if you’re social. Well, I’m Irish-Italian and extremely social.”
In fact, the initial appeal of a job in UCSC’s Rec department was that it gave her the flexibility she needed at the time.

“When I took my job with the recreation department 25-and-a-half years ago, it was two months off in the summer. It was hard for me to accept a 9-to-5 job because I was at the height of my guiding career, and I didn’t want to give it up,” she says. “So I was like, ‘Seriously? Two months off in the summer? Sign me up!’”

But there was something deeper, too. Having moved to Santa Cruz in her early 20s, during the recession of the early ’80s, she had a hard time finding a job she was interested in during the tour-guide off-season. She was working taking money in state-park kiosks with a college degree, and had no idea what year-round career could keep her interested. So she turned to the trendy book What Color is Your Parachute, which promised (among other things) to help readers figure out their dream job.

“I really took that book and went through it, and wrote my job,” she says. “When I got the UCSC job, that was my job! That was the job I had written.”

 

Banff Leader
 

Thanks to Ferraro’s boss, Mark McCarroll, the UCSC Recreation Department already had a great reputation in the adventure-sports world.

“We were on the touring circuit for a lot of outdoor speakers,” says Ferraro. “Lynn Hill, she’s one of the world’s foremost women’s rock climbers. Really well regarded. Arlene Blum, one of the first women to summit K2. Just these big names, we put them on up there. Mark did a really good job of promoting things.”

The Banff Film Festival came to the Rec department not long after it started its World Tour, in the early ’90s, and the staff began presenting it on campus. Putting it on at that point was what Ferraro calls a “revolving-door position” for several years, but in 1998 McCarroll began having her organize it every year, in addition to her other scheduling work for campus programs and trips.

“At that time, I was in charge of adventure outings. I was in charge of the backpacking, hiking, mountain biking, spring break trips to Grand Canyon and Zion. I was in charge of those, and I led some of them. I always led a spring break trip back then,” she says.
And yet, Banff was never just “one more thing” to her. She was excited by the films, and did as much publicity for them as she could. She moved the festival off-campus to the Rio and boosted the number of sponsors from two to 12 (sponsors now cover about half the cost of putting on the festival each year).

The first time she actually went to the Banff Festival in Canada, she was blown away. It changed her whole understanding of the festival, in fact. Initially, she had puzzled over why there were longer, slower cultural films mixed in with the high-octane sports stuff.
“What was great about going to Banff is I saw that was a big part of the festival. It wasn’t just about rock climbing and base-jumping and paragliding and snowboarding and skiing. It was also about mountain culture, and a lot of mountain culture that’s disappearing so fast—Mongolia, Tibet, Bhutan, Africa, some of the places that most of us would never go—and these amazing stories you would never see,” she says.

 

Pushing Limits

At the same time, the adventure films have only gotten more intense. Advances in film technology like the GoPro video camera—which thanks to its tiny size and versatility allows for some of the most harrowing first-person extreme sports footage ever taken—have combined with the increasing ambition of adrenaline junkies to create ever more outrageous short films.

“The winter climbing has become a big part of Banff, because it’s the harshest conditions ever. ‘Let’s go climb Everest in the winter.’ You’re like, seriously? Those guys are crazy. People seem drawn to that. Part of me is like, oh my god, that’s nuts, why would I want to watch that? But you get drawn in by the suffering, and also the humor they’ll bring into it. When they bring that lightness to it, you can tell these guys are loving it.”

This year’s program features Honnold 3.0, in which Alex Honnold attempts to do the “triple crown”—three big rock climbing ascents in Yosemite—in just 24 hours, far and away the shortest amount of time in which the feat was ever completed.
Honnold is also featured in of one of Ferraro’s favorite Banff films ever, 2010’s The Swiss Machine, a 25-minute piece in which Swiss speed climber Ueli Steck rips across rock and ice faces at record speeds.

Her other all-time favorite is the exact opposite of that, 1994’s He Dances for His Cormorants, a quiet, slow 26-minute film about a Chinese fisherman who uses birds to fish.

“Sometimes when we think we want that fast stuff, that just flies right out of our heads,” she says. “But that slower-paced film and the story of this simple man’s life, in a part of China I’ll probably never go to, it was so memorable. That was the film that stayed with me.”
Santa Cruz, she has found, has a similarly eclectic taste, which guides her film selection.

“Santa Cruz seems to really like a diverse selection of films. Over and over Santa Cruz really likes the cultural and environmental aspects. They’re not just adrenaline junkies,” she says.

This year, the more cultural type of Banff film is represented by selections like Gone Curling, a funny, 25-minute look at New Zealanders trying to keep the tradition of outdoor curling alive, or the lyrical Unicorn Sashimi, a gorgeous five-and-a-half-minute tone poem about Japanese ski and snowboard culture.  

The quiet, meditative tone of these films is in sharp contrast to selections like Crossing the Ice, a harrowing tale of two Australians who attempt to be the first people ever to travel from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole and back completely unassisted. Somewhere in between is Wild Bill’s Run, the somehow true story of a group of Midwest crazies who attempted to snowmobile from Minnesota to Moscow in 1972.

If any of those turn out to be someone’s favorite Banff film, Ferraro may very well hear about it, as she often does at the most unexpected times.

“I’ll be at Shopper’s Corner, and it’ll be that time of year when Banff’s getting close, and people will come and introduce themselves and say ‘hi’ to me, and they’ll tell me their favorite film,” she says. “It could be from two years ago, it could be from 20 years ago. Since I’ve been to almost all the shows since we’ve been putting it on, it’s great because I’ll go, ‘Yeah, I totally remember that film!’ They stick with people. They remember the unique, one-of-a-kind films.”