Director: Anthony Bonello
The spirit of adventure and willingness to explore unpopular realms of sport is what sets the X-Dance Film Festival apart from others like it. In this film, director Anthony Bonello collects his cast of skiers and brings them to the mysterious land of Kashmir, India. The word AZADI means “freedom” in Persian, and the film strives to capture the experience the mountains of Kashmir have to offer. In addition to epic skiing, the culture of the surrounding area is examined, which gives the viewer a deeper appreciation for the local population’s struggle for existence. “During the 1980’s, Kashmir was a paradise on Earth, but during the political turmoil in the 1990’s, it became a hell on earth,” said a local business owner. He is referring to the awful conditions that befell the region when Pakistan and India began fighting for control of the land. Almost overnight, swarms of soldiers began appearing, armed checkpoints and guard stations were set up all over the area. The local tourism suffered from the influx of military presence and a majority of the businesses went from seeing thousands of guests per year, to just one or two. The history of violence and battle for control reached its pinnacle during the mid 90’s, and Kashmir’s future seemed bleak. However, a hearty few kept their spirits high and reopened their businesses in the foothills that catered to the small contingent of skiers that continued to visit the area.
The film highlights the times of turmoil and geo-political unrest beautifully as the director mixes in artistic images to the montage of skiing and exploring. Gulmarg is known as the center for skiing in Kashmir, and a gondola that went unused for nearly a decade, has been repaired and expanded to whisk skiers to the tops of 4000-meter peaks. Thanks to intrepid young people, including an energetic man named Billa, the skiing opportunities have flourished. Billa started the Gulmarg Powder Guides and specializes in introducing his beloved land to Westerners. He makes a living showing skiers like Forrest Coots and Chad Sayers around the mountains and helps them find some of the best powder skiing in the world. Coots, who spends most of his winters in Utah, describes his experiences as eye opening and educational. “I enjoyed the time I spent in Kashmir, but traveling with a film crew was sometimes dangerous,” said Coots.
In addition to filming the unbelievable terrain, Bonello also interviews the head of Gulmarg’s snow safety team. In the interview, Brian Newman reveals the intricacies of dealing with military-grade explosives. “When I first arrived here, I wanted to know how much plastic explosive it took to make a meter deep hole in the snow. The military’s response was more like, it takes this much to blow up a bridge,” said Newman. It was critical that Newman approach his mission as one of peaceful intent, and the bombs were for good. No guns on the shoulder, just a pair of skis. Since 2005, the program has proved useful and the ski area has remained open. The days of being labeled as “the most dangerous place in the world” are slowly being replaced by increased praise for the local culture and the gorgeous natural environment that Kashmir has to offer. I believe Bonello did a fantastic job of opening the closed minds of many, and made them realize that some times the best way to resolve an issue is to just go ski and be free.