Future Vision

Remembering the legacy of Adventure Film Festival founder Jonny Copp and seeking out new legends at the annual gathering.

On a rainy October morning on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado, a small group of true outdoor believers gathered for a hike. Following a network of trails behind the Boulder Adventure Lodge, these devoted nature lovers came to experience not just the steep, rugged terrain of the nearby wilderness, but to learn the cultural significance of its historic past. Among the many activities during the 14th annual Adventure Film Festival, this walk through the woods was conducted by one of the event’s sponsors, the local organizers of Outdoor Afro (OA). A national institution with leaders in more than 30 states, OA creates unique opportunities to celebrate the heritage of African-Americans in nature. Guided on their hike by Boulder resident Taishya Adams, the group learned some of Colorado’s Black history. 

“Adventure is our birthright. Adventure is not a luxury for the privileged, but lives in the hearts and minds of every living being on the planet,” said Adams. “By including black history, we honor our ancestors, whose courage, in spite of systemic oppression, helped build this country.”

It may surprise some, but Boulder’s adventure culture includes people of color. In addition to the Arapaho tribe of Native Americans who first occupied this land, Black people are also part of the historic narrative. In keeping with the tradition of the Adventure Film Festival the sharing of these stories empowers all those who attend to see themselves as part of the cultural landscape. 

That spirit of inclusiveness has been a part of the festival since the beginning. Almost 10 years after the tragic death of its founder, Jonny Copp, The Adventure Film Festival continues to inspire  participants to imagine themselves as part of an exciting story. Having evolved to attract a more diverse audience, the festival delivers on the promise of a world of adventure in which all are welcome to participate—a principle Copp championed. Even though it showcases daring feats of athletic skill in the most remote corners of the world, the festival encourages everyone to find the makings of a great hero in themselves. Adventure Film draws from its central theme that no matter who are you can “Make Your Own Legends.”

First-time festival director Sarah Leone has made a  point of ensuring Adventure Film extends the spirit of the man who created it. “I never met Jonny but feel his presence constantly. I have seen the impact his life and the love he exuded has had on so many people,” Leone says. “Being in this role, I understand first-hand the immense amount of work the Copp family and the AFF community have done over the years to keep Jonny’s original vision thriving.”

This was reflected in the selection of films, each of which share compelling stories of great ambition. Highlights include inspired narratives like that of blind kayaker Lonnie Bedwell in “Feel of Vision,” directed by Tucker Gragg, and plus-sized African-American ultra-runner Mirna Valerio, in “The Mirnavator” by Sarah Menzies. The result is a blend of unique characters that appeal to a broad audience. With nods to people of color, the disabled and folks still killin’ it past the age of 60, the assortment of flicks, programmed by José Yavari, brought to Boulder the images and voices of new faces that many in the audience perhaps saw for the first time. “This year I feel proud from having accepted and premiered 4 great films that were either works in progress or were still a concept,” Yavari says. “Over the years you learn to trust the craftsmanship of some filmmakers and you know you’ll have a great film when they’re finished.”

A true standout was “Confluence” by Dana Romanoff and Amy Marquis. Tracing the path of the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon and other National Parks, the film follows a quartet of acoustic musicians who blend the sounds of bird song, water and the chants of Navajo elders. The project arguably embodies the truest spirit of Adventure Film, something judges acknowledged by giving it the Make Your Own Legends Award.

“Being a filmmaker is not the easiest or most traditional road, and in fact it’s one of the hardest things I’ve done,” Romanoff says. “But in doing so, I am living out my passions, my need for adventure and carving my own path, while at the same time helping to create and share stories that will also leave impressions and live on.” 

Jonny Copp may be gone, but the journey he began so long ago remains a driving force in the adventure community. In his memory, artists and storytellers from every imaginable walk of life create and share these enduring legends of tomorrow.

James Edward Mills is the author of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors.

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