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Wild Reels Film Festival Highlights Outdoor Recreation

The Festival

Recently I felt lucky that I heard through the grapevine about a new film festival happening on a Saturday afternoon in the beloved and gorgeous Old Greenbelt Theatre. Because it was a “private screening” with invites going to friends and family, word of mouth somehow brought it to my attention.

All I knew was the name – Wild Reels – and my expectation was that it would show documentaries about the outdoors. Well, yes indeed it did, but not the pastoral pleasures of fishing or easy hiking or maybe photographing wildlife. Oh, no! From the looks of that death-defying climber on the festival’s graphic in the photo above, I should have expected thrills, and that’s what I got!

Here’s how the festival was described in the Eventbrite invitation from organizers Heather Passchier and Philip Larkin:

Join us for an afternoon of adventure, advocacy, and outdoor inspiration, with a hefty helping of crux-sending, sub-zero, boat-swamping, keep-the-rubber-side-down awesomeness. We’ve pulled together a two-hour lineup of award-winning short films from the Banff Film Festival, MountainFilm, and more.

The invitation went on to say that in 2021, in the depths of COVID, “a dozen of us rented out our local historic theater and watched some of our favorite outdoorsy films. It was an escape. It was a fundraiser. It was a great time.” That event mainly focused on rock climbing and Phillip organized it on his own for a small group of climbing enthusiasts. Philip tells me that such sharing among climbers is part of the culture of the sport – getting together in person in winter to share photos and tales of their climbing adventures, a tradition that he hoped to replicate for covid times (spread out safely in the theater’s large auditorium).

Philip’s friend and neighbor Heather was also in attendance and suggested that they work together to repeat the event, next time expanding it to more outdoor sports, and they organized the 2023 festival together.

The intrepid organizers funded the event themselves, the main cost being rental of the theater because thankfully the filmmakers all gave permission to screen the films for free. Which is surprising, given what I assume were high production costs of the 10 films screened, with very remote locations, drone footage, et cetera. So they got lots of no’s but did hear enough yesses as long as the films were shown at a private screening. Donations by the attendees helped.

Heather adds that:

When we started planning the festival, we thought our outdoorsy friends would mainly be interested, but that was not the case. It’s been great to see that there is interest beyond avid hikers, bikers, and climbers. And people of all ages (including my mom who was hiking and rafting into her 60s) can be adventurers!  I’ve been especially inspired by Rebecca Rusch, who won the Iditarod bike race at the age of 52, and Barney Scout Mann, who completed the Triple Crown (through hiking the Appalachian, Continental Divide, and Pacific Crest trails) in his 60s. 

The plan is to turn Wild Reels into an annual, public event focused on outdoor recreation, public lands conservation, and diversity and inclusion in the recreation community, with funding opportunities and other changes being explored (grants, screening on a weekday evening instead of a Saturday afternoon, and so on). “More to share soon, I hope!” as Heather wrote me. “We love kicking off the spring/summer outdoor recreation season with something positive and inspiring for our friends and community.”

And next year the organizers hope to combine the festival with promotion of some of the affinity groups in the area, for folks who are interested in trying new activities or finding new places to explore. An example is the Mid-Atlantic Off-Road Enthusiasts, which is a great resource for mountain biking trails and group rides. 

The Films

The 10 award-winning documentary shorts screened at the festival featured mountain biking, kayaking, climbing, hiking, running, adventuring, conservation activism and “everyday people doing inspiring things on trails, rivers, and rock.”

So this is NOT your typical environmental film festival, which can leave viewers worried and anxious about the future – what Philip calls a “doom and gloom message”. Instead, I found these films inspiring, even thrilling! I left feeling motivated to Just Do It.
Among the films screened:
Eco Hack! – biologist Tim Shields has watched desert tortoise populations in the Mojave Desert plummet since the 1990s.The latest threat? Ballooning populations of ravens, thanks to increased human activity in the desert. Tired of taking notes on a quiet catastrophe, Tim trades traditional observational biology for direct intervention.

THIS LAND from Faith E. Briggs on Vimeo.

This Land – in 2020, runner and advocate Faith E. Briggs ran 150 miles through three U.S. National Monuments that lay in the thick of the controversy around public lands.

A Voice for the Wild Emily Ford and her sled dog attempt to cross the secluded Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in winter to raise awareness about copper mining threats.

Philip Larkin and the Outdoors

Left: A summit somewhere in Appalachia. Right top: Teaching the ropes on a Flying Scott daysailer, near the mouth of the South River (MD). Right bottom: Sending the crux of “Cornice”, a 50-foot climb on the Virginia side of Mather Gorge just downstream from Great Falls.

The festival organizers, both residents of Greenbelt’s historic townhouses, apparently get out, far beyond walking around Greenbelt Lake or biking along the Anacostia, my favorite outdoor activities. .

I learned that Philip grew up in Greenbelt and has lived most of his adult life in this area (including studying chemistry at UMD, where he was a member of the climbing club) and currently working at NASA Goddard. He’s been climbing since the early ’90s, starting at Great Falls, where he learned the ropes from “old-timers who were kind enough to take me under their wings and loan me secondhand gear when I showed up at the crags as a teen. I’ve climbed all over since then.”

Philip tells me he’s seen the popularity of climbing growing in this area, especially thanks to indoor climbing gyms. The closest outdoor climbing to Greenbelt is just off Colesville Road in Silver Spring – the NW Branch Trail, with its 10-15-foot-high boulders, so the climbing is without ropes. “If you fall, you fall.” For nearby climbing with ropes he recommends Carderock near Great Falls.

Philip also runs, hikes, kayaks and sails with the NASA Goddard Sailing Club.

Heather Passchier and the Outdoors

Top left: Appalachian Trail (VA). Top Right: Dolly Sodds (WV). Botton left: Australia. Botton right: Appalachian Trail (VA).
Heather wrote to me that :

I enjoy hiking, backpacking and mountain biking, and, recently, I have gotten into gravel biking thanks to the awesome women at Dirty Kitten Gravel. I grew up in Northern California white water rafting, hiking and camping with my mom, and mountain biking in the redwoods with friends. Maryland and Virginia offer different opportunities and unique environments to explore. I keep busy biking at Fairland and Bacon Ridge, and hiking my way through the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog weekly at GardenRant.com.

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