This year, Mountainfilm on Tour Savannah will kick off their festival on Jan. 16 with "Mountainfilm for Students: Movies that Matter," an educational program that serves over 11,000 students in Savannah Chatham County Public Schools and beyond. Additionally, several films will be screened during their evening programming including "Full Circle" on Jan. 19 and several documentary short films on Saturday, Jan. 20.
Connect Savannah spoke with "Full Circle's" director, Josh Berman and the film's subject, Trevor Kennison, who copes with a severe spinal injury, risk of the unknown, and growth after a traumatic event.
Kennison, who grew up snowboarding and skiing in Colorado, spent much of his time in the slopes. “...The sense of freedom, the powder, the snow, the whole culture of the ski and snowboarding industry is awesome,” Kennison stated.
Life changed for the then trade plumber on Nov. 15th, 2014, when Kennison broke his back snowboarding in the backcountry of Vail Pass in Colorado. Now, wheelchair bound with the love of skiing still in him, Kennison got back on a mountain to ski a year and three months after his injury. By chance, Kennison tried sit-skiing-an adaptive device that helps wheelchair users to ski.
“After getting hurt, going back to the sport that got me hurt, it was just one of those things that when I did it, I thought, 'woah, man, I honestly love this,' Kennison said with a smile on his face. “Getting to the trees for me was complete freedom and having an empty chair is the best wheelchair in the game,” he ended with a laugh.
Finding a new love in an old hobby, he began ski-racing using a sit-ski until 2019, where Josh Berman, the film's director, said another event changed Kennison's life once more.
“Trevor's career really got its jump start in February of 2019,” Berman said.
Berman, the “Godfather of Street Skiing”, is a seasoned filmmaker based in Colorado who has been directing award winning, outdoor and action sports films for over 20 years. Kennison and Berman got in contact with each other roughly after the jump in 2019 and started filming Jan. 4, 2020, after one of Kennison’s sponsors suggested that he make a docuseries about him doing outdoor activities such as kayaking and biking as someone in a wheelchair.
“...He talked his way into an event called the Kings & Queens of Corbet's which is in Jackson Hole, Wyoming,” Berman continued. “It's at a location called Corbet's Couloir, which is this extreme feature on the mountain that's like a three-foot cliff off the top into this narrow shoot between these massive rock outcroppings.”
Berman continued to explain that everyone thought Kennison was going to safely make his way down the mountain. Instead, Kennison launched from the top of the snowy titan- a 60-foot jump that went viral, even being named on SportCenter’s Top 10 Play.
Though the idea of a documentary film hadn’t presented itself yet, Kennison and Berman’s creative union was set in stone soon.
“We're gonna do a small web series of me skiing,” said Kennison. “I think biking, which I haven't done that time and then kayaking, which I've never done. And that was kind of the start of a day one of filming January 4, 2020. It was my first time in the backcountry in five and a half years since I broke my back.”
Filming as much as he could, director Berman felt like the project had more substance that was waiting to be unlocked.
“He (Kennison) radiates an energy that few other people put out there,” said Berman. “... As soon as I started spending time with him, I felt like there was a bigger story.”
Unbeknownst to both Berman and Kennison, the Corbet’s Couloir was named after a world-famous climber and explorer, Barry Corbet. Known to be the first to climb the two highest peaks in Antarctica in 1968 and part of the first U.S. exploration to the top of Mount Everest.
“...We're talking like a pretty extreme dude who was really leading the movement of what was going on in climbing and albinism. He was also a skier. He was also a filmmaker,” Berman pointed out. “...He very famously pointed to the Couloir and said someday, someone will ski that and that's how that got his name.”
Though these attributes are remarkable, perhaps what Corbet is most known for is his resilience after enduring a helicopter accident in the 60s that injured his spinal cord and left him in a wheelchair, similar to Kennison.
“He is really largely credited in the spinal cord injury community for redefining what people thought was possible,” Berman added. “...Really, I like to say Barry built the foundation for Trevor and people like Trevor, to continue to redefine what was possible and their stories are just linked across time and space in so many ways. And those are many of the circles that we complete in the film, which is called "Full Circle.”
The film follows Kennison as he continues toward personal growth post his accident in parallel to Corbet, all while preparing for his return to the site of his accident six year prior, in the Vail Pass backcountry. Corbet, who is also featured in the film, is shown as a beacon to everyone he came in contact with that his spinal cord injury only limited his ability to walk during his life.
This documentary shows all aspects of Kennison’s life- from being a pro athlete in a wheelchair, to navigating tasks that able bodied people may not think twice about doing. This raw and impactful story was fueled by a lot of ambition and purpose to drive Kennison’s story to the viewers in creative ways. Something Berman explained was a big hurdle in post-production.
“We had tons of archival footage and content both from Trevor and Barry's lives, and we chose to do a few reenactments,” he said. “Trevor's accident scene, for example, was one of the big challenges in figuring out how to portray and that was it.”
Though some scenes may be reenactments, the big finale, Kennison’s world’s first double backflip on a sit-ski at Vail Pass, was captured in real time. That double backflip is a moment both Kennison and Berman hold close to their hearts.
“I didn't speed check it,” said Kennison. “But I just knew what I needed to do in here and just visually visualize it.”
In the air, every experience of skiing for Kennison culminated to those brief seconds and after two backflips, he lands it.
“I went off to the side, and I just started like, crying. I was like, “no, I can't believe this happened.” Kennison stated. Though he believes he could have done a triple backflip for the second try, Berman advised against it in their brief conversation. With his mother and sister being present for the special moment, Kennison showed everyone that he, someone with spinal cord damage, has zero limitations.
“I remember hugging Josh and literally he was like, dude, in 20 years I haven't shot anything that incredible. Yeah, you know, there was a cheer in his eyes. So, it's a it was a really special moment for sure.”
“It's coming out on Netflix, on the night team. So right around the corner,” said Berman. “It's the coolest thing ever. Like I've never made a film that's ended up on a major streaming platform before. The goal of any film is certainly to put it in front of as many eyeballs as possible. And that was even more the case with this film because I think it's such an important message of positivity and hope and I mean, what I like to say the film is really all about turning tragedy into opportunity.”
The film "Full Circle" will be shown on Jan. 19 at Trustees Theater at 7pm. Following the film screening, there will be a Q&A via Zoom with director, Josh Berman and film subject, Trevor Kennison. For more information about the festival and to purchase tickets, visit: https://www.mountainfilmsav.org/