Poetic film marries art and wilderness

Marten Berkman’s intriguingly titled new film, Adrenaline Bach, is both a simple visual story and a profound meditation on humans’…

Marten Berkman’s intriguingly titled new film, Adrenaline Bach, is both a simple visual story and a profound meditation on humans’ relationship to the natural world.

Berkman wrote and directed the six-minute film, which was produced by the National Film Board — a first for the Yukon filmmaker and photographer.

He was chosen by the NFB as the winner of the 2006 Yukon Northern Sights Short Film Competition, in which emerging filmmakers were invited to submit story ideas for films of up to eight minutes.

“It was wonderful to have the funds there to do it properly,” says Berkman. “It was a total luxury, and a joy for me that it resonated for the film board as well.”

Told entirely without dialogue or voice-over, the film features Tim Sellars, a triathlon athlete and musician, as he climbs the forest trails and craggy ridges of the Yukon’s boreal mountains.

“The story did not need dialogue,” says Berkman, “and when the film board realized that I didn’t want any, they were quite excited, because it meant that any audience can watch this film, in any country.”   

The NFB calls the film “visually stunning,” an apt description for a piece that relies on the strength of film as a visual medium to convey the story.

In fact it was an official selection at this year’s Montreal World Film Festival in its Focus on World Cinema category.

Berkman’s producer Selwyn Jacob, who attended the screenings, reports that the audience reaction was “very satisfying.”

Adrenaline Bach doesn’t deliver a predictable story about the beauty of nature or our attempts to master it.

It’s a piece that, as Berkman says, “plays with our preconceptions” and then delivers an unexpected outcome, “so we learn ourselves how conditioned we are.”

But to reveal more of the film would be to spoil its surprising, and moving, climax — a climax that epitomizes, for Berkman, what his work is all about.

“I saw a beautiful story to tell about someone who merges athleticism with art in his expression of life and joy,” says Berkman about his inspiration for the film, which came from the lifestyle of Sellars himself.

“Tim was totally keen when he heard the idea,” Berkman says of his actor. “He was a great participant. We were several days out there shooting, and he was totally patient and game.”

Most of the principal photography was done at Wolf Creek and Grey Mountain last summer, though “the weather didn’t always co-operate,” laughs Berkman. “I needed some bad weather, and I wasn’t getting it.”

In the end, he had to shoot some of the scenes in the fall because “I wanted that variety of character of the alpine environment, the emotion and mood that is brought on by rain and cloud and mist.”

A deeper inspiration for the film came from what Berkman calls “my own sense of want in our culture’s representation of how we relate to the wilderness.”

That relationship, Berkman argues, is more often depicted in film in terms of achievement or conquest — “getting to the top of the mountain, doing the wildest river, to the [sound of the] loudest rock music.”

The title of the film draws on the fact that many films about the natural world are “about adrenaline, whereas this film is ultimately about music,” says Berkman.

“I really feel there’s so much that’s not being said about our relationship with place. I think this is an issue for our culture. That issue inspires a lot of my work, whether in film or photography.”

Berkman was born in Montreal and studied both visual art and geography, managing to work on two degrees at two different institutions — Concordia and McGill — at the same time.

That high-energy drive has fueled his subsequent work, judging by the number of books, awards, exhibits, and multimedia projects he’s been involved with.

To date he has made seven films, ranging from short pieces such as Adrenaline Bach to a 50-minute documentary on the Yukon Quest.

Berkman describes his artistic practice as “remote sensibility,” a play on the term remote sensing, which is a means of acquiring data about the environment for scientific or industrial purposes.

“But what about our immaterial needs, and what about our emotive needs? How are our senses connected to these remote places that most of us will never visit, and yet which we all depend on in one way or another?

“For someone in downtown Toronto or Hong Kong, this film provides a little window into that world. It’s not just a nature film where I’m pointing the camera at the mountains, it’s about us and this place. Through another person, people can embark on a story, and it provides a bit of a bridge for them.”

Another revelation for Berkman came when he was travelling in South America and saw a Paleolithic tool-making site that was next to the largest copper mine in the world.

“I realized — hold on, these two things are actually the same. One is simply an extension of the other. The tool-making site — would we ever say that’s not natural, that it didn’t fit in the natural world? It’s the way we existed for millions of years, it’s the world we come from.”

Yet, Berkman says, the separation in industrial culture from the subject of our activities prevents an experience of empathy for other living things.

“It’s in our nature to be industrious,” notes Berkman, “but at the same time we’re in an ecological crisis due to our behaviour. So I’m interested in how we can, in respecting and embracing our own nature, also have a bridge to the rest of the natural world that is meaningful.

“Even if we live in the cities, [we can] be indigenous again, [we can] actually belong, instead of being creatures who live without awareness.”

In fact we’re orphaned without the connection, says Berkman.

On his website he quotes the Danish writer Isak Dinesen (the pseudonym for Karen Blixen, who wrote the memoir Out of Africa): “The civilized people have lost the aptitude of stillness, and must take lessons in silence from the wild.”

“It’s essential in my work that I create those bridges, in my small way, for my fellow humans in industrial society to connect with other life.”

Patricia Robertson is a Whitehorse-based writer.