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Banff Film Festival

Some thoughts on Ambition

When I grew up I wanted to play for Leeds United*, to run out at Elland Road. I wanted to bat at Headingley. I still remember the creeping realisation that these things were never going to happen.

Later in life I dreamed of publishing a book. Today, that glass ceiling has been shattered and anyone can publish a book at any time.

When I speculatively bought a camera that could film stuff and decided to teach myself how to make films, I didn’t even know enough to know what sort of ambitions I might have.

Over time I learned that the pinnacle of accomplishment for adventure film-makers is to have your film chosen as a winner at either the Banff Mountain Film Festival or the Kendal Mountain Festival. As a novice film-maker, the quality of the films shown at these festivals provided me only with envy and inspiration. They were a world away from my skills to actually contemplate getting there myself.  

In November 2012, Leon McCarron and I set off into Arabia’s Empty Quarter to attempt to walk through the sands to Dubai. We followed in the footsteps of our hero, iconic explorer Wilfred Thesiger, updating his journey by switching the traditional camel caravan for dragging 300kg of supplies in a homemade steel cart. It was the first journey I have ever done whose primary goal was to make a film. Until now my films had always been an afterthought. (An Aside: Here are a few thoughts about how this changes an expedition.)

Full moon in the desert

Our journey became a film called ‘Into The Empty Quarter’. At some point I need to write a blog post about the process of killing hours and hours and hours of hard-won, beloved footage and turning it into a cohesive story. In case I don’t get round to that soon, here is a summary: it’s a lot harder than the trip itself!

Empty Quarter desert

This November, two years after the journey into the desert, ‘Into The Empty Quarter’ will be screened at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, probably the best-respected adventure film festival in the world. When we first began to plan the expedition, our dreams – in order of increasing degrees of wishful thinking were:

  1. Get to the start line of the journey with just 6 weeks preparation
  2. Complete the expedition with a ridiculously crap cart
  3. Make a film about the adventure
  4. Have the film shown at a film festival somewhere in the world
  5. Have the film shown at Banff…

When we heard our film had been selected as a finalist for Banff, I was ridiculously excited. I’m as proud of this as almost anything else I’ve ever done. Our film won’t win – I am still  at the amateur end of the film-maker spectrum. But I’m delighted because I have come further than I could have imagined back when I gambled what was a vast sum of money for me at the time and bought my first movie camera.

Empty Quarter desert expedition

Ambition is a strange beast. We are encouraged to “be ambitious! Dream big! Everything is possible if only you want it enough!”

Here is what I believe to be true about ambition:

  • Dreaming big is a good thing. We are capable of more than we imagine.
  • Chasing a goal gives us purpose, direction and satisfaction.
  • Hard work, ridiculous positivity, putting in the hours, and generally “wanting it” will certainly take us a long way.

And yet. All the ambition, dreaming, “wanting it” in the world would never have made me a professional sportsman. The world does not work that way. And I think then that we need to be cautious about ambition.

Be ambitious, certainly. But focus your ambition on things that can be achieved by practise, perseverance and learning. Don’t pin your hopes and happiness on dreams that depend upon luck. Luck is important for everything in life. But choose only recipes that require a pinch of luck, for to do otherwise is unrealistic. That’s not to say that you may not exceed your wildest expectations, but don’t make your happiness depend upon that. You should be happy with the process too, just mucking about with your first video camera and trying to make stuff look nice…

*I’d probably get a game today if I gave them a ring, I know…

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  1. Congratulations. The Banff Film Festival is awesome. I have been following your blog for a while now after reading your two bike touring books…which introduced me to something that I love to do. I had backpacked, but had never thought of doing it on a bike. Since then we have bike toured the east cost of the US and the Great Divide Route. Thanks for the inspiration.



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