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The Crash Reel: A dangerous passion, a stunning recovery

Oscar-nominated Film telling the story of snowboard champion Kevin Pearce closes WFF



Right at the end of the documentary The Crash Reel is a beautifully shot clip of champion snowboarders Shaun White and Kevin Pearce launching themselves down a half-pipe together through darkness and bright spotlights.

It shows a great athletic rivalry but also a kind of fluid respect for each other's skills. It is all the more poignant because that rivalry was severed after Pearce suffered a catastrophic fall while training at Park City, Utah, on Dec. 31, 2009. It was just weeks before an expected 2010 Olympic showdown with White at Cypress Mountain in West Vancouver.

The Crash Reel tells the story of the accident, when Pearce suffered brain trauma after hitting his head just above his left eye, and how the then 22-year-old fought back to recover his life. The very passion that drove him to be a champion was what brought him back from a near-vegetative state.

On Dec. 3 it was announced that the film is one of 15 finalists for the 2014 Academy Awards.

It is the Closing Gala film of the Whistler Film Festival, and a Canadian premiere, with two showings on Sunday, Dec. 8, at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at the Rainbow Theatre.

The doc fits well into the past decade's work of director Lucy Walker in that it tells a strong, dramatic story, whatever the source. Walker, who has been nominated for an Oscar twice before, has shown films at the Vancouver International Film Festival before but never at WFF.

 "I try to look for amazing people in a fascinating world that raises important questions. A real story with a beginning, middle and end. I think this is true of this film," Walker says.

A comparison to the work of Ang Lee, who, like Walker, makes widely different films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to Sense and Sensibility, pleases her. They went to the same film school.

"I love that you compare me to a fiction filmmaker because there is so much fiction filmmaking craft in documentary filmmaking. I am always trying to develop my craft and skills in general and I try to work with collaborators who are at the top of their game," she says.

"I also like that the story dictates the craft to the extent that with The Crash Reel, for example the graphic, the cinematography, the editing and the music choices, we really tried to let this film be its own thing. It's very exuberant at the beginning and very emotional when it needs to be."

Walker started to make the film as Pearce was undergoing rehabilitation, and used some of the extensive footage shot by his friends, family, sponsors and fans, who were constantly capturing Pearce on and off his snowboard before the accident. The Crash Reel is very much a story of the digital age and non-stop public filming.

"One of the reasons I chose to make the film, even though I only came in after the crash was that we could track down this footage in order to tell the story in a way that would be extremely cinematic," Walker says.

Particularly powerful are the family discussions after the accident as Pearce initially decides he wants to return to the competitive half-pipe world and his parents and brothers are terrified that one simple fall will kill him. His older brother David, who has Down's syndrome, eloquently pleads for his heavily driven brother to slow down and face the dangers.

The Crash Reel looks outside Pearce's experience into the world of those who experience brain injuries in sports. One of the most emotional moments for the Whistler audience will likely be the appearance of the late Whistler X-Games champion Sarah Burke, who died after being injured on the same half-pipe as Pearce almost two years ago. Her husband Rory Bushfield is interviewed by Walker after Burke's death.

The Crash Reel premiered at The Sundance Film Festival in January and has played around the world, from Moscow to New Zealand, winning the audience award at the South X Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas.

Both Walker and Pearce will be at Sunday's gala screening. Pearce now works to promote awareness of brain injuries and helmet wearing. He still snowboards, though not competitively, and according to Sports Illustrated, will carry the Olympic torch at Sochi.