The Austin Chronicle

Searching for New Heights at Film Fests Reel Rock 14 and Reel Plastic

Two rock-climbing film fest come to Austin

By Beth Sullivan, November 15, 2019, Screens

With sport climbing's debut at the 2020 Olympic Games a little more than half a year away, interest in rock climbing is poised at an all-time high. That, and the fact that some of this decade's biggest climbing feats – Alex Honnold's ascent of Yosemite's El Capitan (Free Solo) and Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson's free climb of El Capitan's famed Dawn Wall (The Dawn Wall) – have been captured in critically lauded, widely distributed films, is allowing the once fringe sport to reach new audiences.

Founded in 2005, Reel Rock has grown into the world's biggest climbing media platform, traveling every year to screen a new selection of world premiere films – with this year marking the fest's 10th stop in Austin. For festival executive producer Zachary Barr (producer of the Emmy Award-winning Valley Uprising), the growing interest in such films from climbers and non-climbers alike has proven a boon to climbing, both on the rock wall and in theatres. "From the film side, I think there's just a lot more people who have an interest in these films and think to themselves, 'Oh, I could enjoy this kind of film.' There's a lot of people who have definitely started climbing because they saw the film."

Unlike other festivals, Reel Rock produces all of its films. In this year's lineup, Honnold and Caldwell return to the silver screen in The Nose Speed Record, capturing the duo's first sub-two-hour speed climb of El Capitan's 3,000-foot Nose route in 2018. "The High Road" profiles elite climber Nina Williams, one of the few boulderers who climbs highballs (30-foot-plus bouldering problems) without a rope. "United States of Joe's" focuses on the fraught relationships between climbers and the residents of Utah's Emery County, home to fabled bouldering destination Joe's Valley. "['United States of Joe's'] is really a cultural-political riff on what's happening in our country right now, where most people are divided into one camp or the other, politically and culturally," Barr explained. "And it's interesting that those two kinds of communities come together around public lands. ... [The film] provides a road map or blueprint for how these communities can work together."

The advent of the indoor climbing gym has also transformed the sport, as evidenced by Reel Rock 14's sold-out shows in more vertically challenged cities like Houston and Miami. While home to the Greenbelt's limestone and Enchanted Rock's pink granite, Austin's no stranger to climbing gyms, either. Host gym to Reel Rock since 2017, Crux Climbing Center is throwing its first-ever mini film fest, Reel Plastic, to showcase local climbers and filmmakers. "When you go to Reel Rock, you're watching these pro athletes doing these insane feats of climbing, and you just get so inspired," said Crux co-owner and CMO Grace Nicholas. "So the aspect of Reel Plastic was it would be cool to tell the stories that our own community's doing that [are] still just as crazy or funny."

Nicholas says she's noticed an increased interest in climbing filmmaking as the local climbing scene grows. Though the films are less "artistic" than titles like The Dawn Wall – Reel Plastic's set to include training films, a first ascent in Central Texas, and a new vid from Crux-sponsored climber Keenan Takahashi – relationships between filmmakers and climbers are developing in Austin. "I have, almost monthly, a photographer or videographer reaching out and being like, 'Hey, if you need any help, I'm getting into climbing and would love to shoot something.' It's a way for those people to share their skills with the community by connecting with climbers and filming them."

Reel Rock 14

Mon.-Tue., Nov. 18-19, 7-11pm @AFS Cinema, 6406 N. I-35 #3100.

Reel Plastic

Thu., Nov. 21, 6pm @Crux Climbing Center, 121 Pickle #100.

Tickets and info at

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.