“The Search for Freedom” tries to pin down the mentality of an action sports athlete
A little over halfway through “The Search for Freedom,” documentary director Jon Long switches from crisp, high-definition footage of modern surfers and skateboarders doing what they do best to introduce slightly grainy archival footage of Shane McConky.
Even before McConky’s name appeared on-screen, the crowd of 200 or so viewers at the Riverwalk Center in Breckenridge let out a collective holler. See, he was something of a daredevil anti-hero, the sort who poached out-of-bounds stashes, clashed regularly with ski patrollers and, after an infamous bare-ass mogul run at Vail in the ‘90s, was banned from his then-home mountain for life.
But McConky was also the sort who helped pioneer modern ski technology — the documentary shows snippets of a sketchy backcountry descent on modified water skis — and hardly thought twice about skiing off the edge of a massive, Valhalla-like cliff in the Italian Dolomite range, only to pull a parachute at the last minute. He’s arguably the first person to combine skiing and BASE jumping, and, for that alone he deserves a round of applause, notorious or otherwise.
He died doing what he loved (or at least what he was born to do) in 2009, when his parachute failed to open during a BASE jump on the same Dolomite drop where he first tempted fate. The film glosses over his fate, but it manages to capture his devil-may-care attitude and pure, unadulterated passion for all things extreme and possibly dangerous.
I caught “The Search for Freedom” at the Breckenridge Film Festival on Sept. 19, and, although I could hardly make out any faces in the dim amphitheater on the Blue, I could tell just about everyone in the room came because they share a bit of McConky’s insanity. Long, a Canadian director who started with ‘90s-era ski and surf films before his big break with the IMAX feature “Extreme,” pairs McConky’s antics with interviews and original footage from 25 pro athletes. He is a skier at heart — he grew up in British Columbia, the epicenter of big-mountain everything — and chose to film action sports athletes with one goal in mind: Uncover why they risk life and limb for a fleeting rush of adrenaline.
The film follows a by-the-numbers documentary format, starting first with California’s surfing subculture in the ‘50s before showing how it influenced just about every action sport on the planet. There’s a touch of wistful nostalgia in the opening scenes, when old-school surfers and skateboarders talk about “the core” (aka the pioneers, OGs, whatever) in reverent tones.
Board sports of all varieties foster a certain punk attitude, the type personified by McConky’s “f** you” to Vail Resorts or even the Wild West of Main Street in Breckenridge in the late ‘80s.
And, for just about everyone featured in the film, the attitude and lifestyle are nearly as important as landing the next big trick. The film doesn’t hone in on up-and-coming athletes, but Long goes out of his way to show the entire spectrum of action sports personalities. There’s a lush and contemplative segment with Meg Roh, a Hawaii native who has surfed for 3,000 days in a row and counting. When the film crew caught up with her, she was on the eve of the 3,000-day landmark and showed no signs of letting up.
“In surfing, there’s no depletion, there’s no creation,” an unnamed narrator says. “It’s just an aesthetic instant.”
“The Search for Freedom” uses that concept to hone in on the best of the best, guys like Tony Hawk, big-mountain rider Jeremy Jones and rock climber Yvon Chouinard, along with ladies like Roh and snowboarder Annie Boulanger, who barely escapes a heart-pumping slab slide in her segment. This leads to stunning footage from more than a dozen picturesque locations across the world, turning it into the most enticing (if unintended) tourism board video this side of a Warren Miller flick.
Unlike their stiff-lipped peers in the NFL and MLB, Long’s roster of action athletes flit from funny to nonsensical to philosophical, often during the same talking-head interview. There’s Hawk remembering his revolutionary 900 attempt in 2008, Kelly Slater winning his 11th consecutive World Surfing Championships and Robbie Maddison, an Australian moto rider who reveres Evel Knievel, recalling his insane 80-foot jump from the Las Vegas strip to the top of Caesars Palace.
Through it all, the athletes weigh in on the newfound popularity of action sports. Some factors are easier to pin down than others — GoPros and other action cameras have brought point-and-shoot filming to the masses — but, despite occasional griping about the old days, the athletes are stoked (yep, stoked) that snowboarding, skateboarding and rock climbing are finding a new, young, willing audience.
Beginning with McConky’s death, “The Search for Freedom” doesn’t dig too far below the surface. The interviews are interesting and the footage is incredible, but, for anyone who really, truly, deeply wants to know more about the psyche of an action athlete, it might come up short. There’s footage of several athletes playing with their children, but, again, the question of death — as in, “Do you worry about leaving your child behind?” — never comes up. Neither does an examination of man versus nature — even though just about every sport minus skateboarding relies on the outdoors.
The closest comes in a late-film segment on fear. It’s clear that even the best still get nervous, but they handle it much differently than the majority of the world.
“It takes falling,” says Huston, a top-level street skater. “It takes falling a lot and falling hard, and it hurts, but that’s what it takes.”
But I didn’t come for a thesis, and neither did the film fest crowd. We wanted to catch top pros doing their thing on camera, a little appetizer before the start of ski season, and that’s exactly what we got. I’m fine with that.
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