When work as a fly-fishing guide takes Valgerður “Vala” Árnadóttir to Greenland, her daughter, Mathilda, stays behind at their home in Reykjavik, imagining her mother reeling in 7-pound arctic char on rivers that rarely see an angler. Back home in Iceland, they fish together, the two lined up in matching black down jackets and loose blonde hair. While Mathilda imagines the adventures, Árnadóttir hopes to see her imagining a future for herself—not necessarily falling into the family business, but recognizing, through the route less traveled taken by Árnadóttir, that her life is her own to direct.
“I would like to teach her that she will be independent, she can stand on her own two feet, she doesn’t need anybody else, she can figure things out on her own,” Árnadóttir says in the short documentary “My Mom Vala,” featured in the nationally touring Mountainfilm festival. “I want Mathilda to make her own story.”
It’s a remarkable and sweet film—and it’s one of only two films in the lineup of 14 screening in Santa Fe’s stop for Mountainfilm that features a woman as a central character. Granted, humans yield the floor in some entries to wildlife. The other, “Hayley: 90 Seconds on Fear” focuses on Hayley Ashburn, once one of the foremost female slackliners.
Of 120 films screened at the annual festival in Telluride, Colorado, 54 are optioned to tour, and 26 of those either feature or are directed by women, according to Naani Sheva, tour programming coordinator. The locally selected lineup includes two additional films, “Climbing Out of Disaster” and “Escape,” directed or co-directed by women.
Local nonprofit WildEarth Guardians hosts this film stop and selects the films from suggested playlists with this community in mind, says Whitney Stewart, an event planner contracted to put the evening together. She looks for interesting, compelling and diverse films with ties to the environment, she says. Her standouts include “A New View of the Moon,” about a man sharing views of the moon through his telescope with fellow Los Angeles residents, and “A Letter to Congress,” narrated by a letter Wallace Stegner wrote in defense of wilderness. That films by or about women dropped off the list was just a matter of focusing on other priorities.
There’s also a question of what’s available. A 2013 study from the Sundance Institute and Women In Film Los Angeles surveyed women filmmakers, and found they reported issues including gendered financial barriers, male-dominated industry networking and stereotyping on-set hampered their careers. They recommended mentoring and encouraging women, easing financing and raising awareness of the problem.
Last year, half of the features at Mountainfilm were directed by women; but short films have seen more men as filmmakers, says Suzan Beraza, festival director. It’s tough, she says, particularly in adrenaline-fueled categories, to keep a balance.
“I do feel there’s like this sort of bro mentality when these guys are making films, and that they turn to guys to be the ones to be the cameramen, going off on these adventures,” Beraza says. “I get this idea that they’re like, ‘Oh we need guys who can really carry a lot of gear.’ … It’s just, how to get more women into that world, because they’re totally kickass.”
Beraza says she’s also noticed women, herself included, trend toward social justice issues.
“I just don’t have a lot of interest in making adventure films, even though I’m outdoorsy and I like to ski and mountain bike,” she says.
Even for women who do, getting involved can be a challenge, she says, citing Faith E Briggs, an African American filmmaker working on a film about the National Brotherhood of Skiers, which supports people of color getting onto the slopes.
She’s an inspiration and working in the thick of things, Beraza says, “and she struggles with it—like how to get these guys to know that you can do the job, that you can live in a tent and that you can trek miles with gear. It just takes a little bit of poking, like, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”
The next Mountainfilm festival, which occurs in May, will pilot a film-pitching forum to connect new and diverse filmmakers with private companies who pay to produce films.
“It’s trying to get at it at the beginning, before the project is even made,” she says. “We need to be thinking about this all the time and making steps toward making it better and getting it right. … I’m a Latina and I grew up in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, and another big thing for me is not having white people always telling brown people’s stories. It’s really giving people a chance to tell their own stories.”
The hope, then, might be that by the time Mathilda’s story is ready to be told, she’ll be the one to do so.