Last weekend, on the way back to Armenia from a final film editing stint in London, I stopped over in Bucharest, Romania, for a long weekend at the Hip Trip Travel Film Festival.
The festival was organised by a small team of Romanian travellers and film lovers. In 2014 – their first year – they’d shown Janapar, but I’d been unable to go. So it was by happy chance that this year’s dates matched my movements and I was able to swing by for the 2015 instalment, which featured 20 films in 2 cinemas over the course of the 4-day festival.
During the Q&A after the preview of Karun (which is out in November, by the way), somebody asked if I would consider an adventure in Romania.
I replied that yes, I would love to, as Romania is a place I’ve longed to return to since I rode my bicycle across Europe way back in 2007.
My memories of Romania from that time are stark. Being a novice traveller at the time, first impressions counted for a lot, and mine had involved a 100km dash across the Hungarian plains, ducking under a metal barrier, a thunderstorm, and a lot of very soggy, empty fields. That day’s adventure had ended at the real border post – in the middle of the night and in the company of a dozen or so Romanian policemen who’d responded to reports of illegal border crossings by three cyclists and come to look for us in the dark. They’d found us.
Things improved. Rural Romania was the most materially impoverished place I’d come across at the time – yet this made the willingness of its inhabitants to house and feed us all the more affecting.
And then we reached the Făgăraș Mountains.
It is images of the week we spent on its dirt tracks that now spring to mind when someone mentions Romania. This chain of forested peaks is as close to untouched as Eastern Europe gets; sparsely inhabited, home to bears, wolves and lynx, and riddled with trails – an outdoor traveller’s dream.
So it was with happy memories that I found myself once again in Bucharest.
In any case, I’ve found it’s always worth coming to new and further-flung adventure film festivals like Hip Trip. They’re inevitably passion projects in their early days – and that passion suffused everything about my time there. It’s small enough to be intimate and to feel that you’re part of a coherent group, yet big enough for there to be a real buzz in the air surrounding the films being shown and the ideas they express.
For a filmmaker, they’re also a great opportunity to see what other people are making. I watched two other films over the weekend (in between being stuffed full of traditional Romanian food by the organisers). The first was Hit The Road: India, which followed the misadventures of a two-man team participating in the Rickshaw Express organised rally from Mumbai to Chennai.
All writers should read more books, and all filmmakers should watch more films. Watching Hit The Road: India was a good reminder of why that’s true.
Working as I do with many people who dip in and out of the British TV industry, there are expectations of editorial style that rarely get questioned. This was different – slow, moody, verging on experimental at times, and crafted with a perceptible lack of inhibition – refreshing and enjoyable to watch.
It wasn’t perfect, but when you’re spending 15 hours on the road each day and then another 2 or 3 drying out your cameras with a hairdryer, perfection is not a realistic goal.
By some bizarre coincidence the director turned out to be a native Armenian from Yerevan. We got chatting over dinner, and – Yerevan being the giant village that it is – we quickly established that my wife’s best friend used to work for his production company. Conversation quickly moved on to the unintelligible nature of the Midlands accent. (He had recently moved to Nottingham.)
The second film I watched was Between Snow And Stars, the debut directorial project of a 23-year-old French filmmaker named Tom Valliant.
It’s a special interest piece shot in two locations – Finnish Lapland and Everest Base Camp. The film paints portraits of well-known outdoor athletes in their element. Through a series of interviews on location, it delivers insights into the reality of what they do and the motivations behind it. If these are subjects you’re interested in, it’s worth watching for their stories alone.
Where the film really stood out for me was in the visual artistry and sound design, which lifts the piece far above what it might otherwise have been. Tom has a truly exceptional eye behind the camera, and possesses sufficient grit to get himself to where he needs to be to capture the images. The full year spent on scoring and recording the soundtrack is also apparent.
In that sense, his film is a stunning example of what one filmmaker can create with a Canon 7D and a couple of Contour action cameras. But when you hear from Tom himself the trials and tribulations of the three-year production process, you start to realise that it’s also an example of what a passionate newcomer to filmmaking can achieve – starting with a good dollop of talent, of course, but following up with a dogged determination to see a truly epic project through to the end.
You simply never know who you’re going to meet at festivals like Hip Trip. I hit it off with Tom immediately and within a few hours we’d thrashed out several years’ worth of wildly idealistic travel and adventure projects. (Lucky thing, too, as I never seem to have enough on my plate.)
This makes such festivals prime opportunities for the cross-pollination of ideas. Two projects Tom mentioned seem worth re-mentioning here:
The Traveling Spoon looks set to become the latest so-called ‘disruptive’ technology in travel. What AirBnb is doing to paid accommodation and Uber is doing to the taxi industry, The Traveling Spoon may well do to the catering trade. An idea so simple you’ll kick yourself for not thinking of it first: select your destination, choose a home cook, then go round to their house for dinner – and pay for it by Paypal.
Something about the subversive nature of the idea appeals to that (big) part of me who’s spent most of his adult life attempting to subvert the system. And I’d certainly be tempted to try it.
But there is also a skeptical part of me who sees technologies like this as eroding not just the establishment but also its opposite – couchsurfing, hitch-hiking, and the sharing of food for its own sake. What The Traveling Spoon, Uber and AirBnb are doing – alongside undermining their respective industries – is turning what is often an act of giving into a financial transaction too, with creaming a bit off the top being the business model.
People who used to host couchsurfers are now renting out their spare rooms. People who used to cook for their friends are now cooking for paying guests.
And I’m not sure how I feel about that.
The Wandering Samaritan, on the other hand, is delightfully altruistic. Any traveller can apply to become one. The concept is equally simple: those on the road long-term will typically encounter people in need, and the organisation provides access to a crowdfunded pot of cash to selectively help meet those needs, whether that’s rebuilding a mould-infested kindergarten in Las Malvinas or providing new wheelchairs in a Columbian mountain village.
It’s spontaneous foreign aid on a human scale; random acts of kindness with financial backing. And it’s a terrific counterpoint to the cynical worldview of the politicians I’ve disowned by leaving the UK – which is probably why I like the idea so much.
The Hip Trip Travel Film Festival, then – a weekend well spent. I can’t help comparing it to last year’s Kendal Mountain Festival, from which my memories consist mainly of listening to people talking about themselves, drinking too much beer, and sleeping on a hill behind the venue. The English-speaking world tends to get all the attention when it comes to big, established adventure festivals, but the scene is alive and growing elsewhere, and it’s great to be reminded of that.