You don’t hear those terms used together very often, if ever. But when former Patagonia sales rep turned filmmaker, Hansi Johnson, got the call to produce a video for the band Low, he drew on two of his passions to make a very strong point about the state of the environment. Hansi decided to focus the video on Nordic skiing and how it is being lost to global warming, a message that complements the basic theme of protest that runs through Low’s new album Drums and Guns. From Hansi:
It is a short three-minute flick that uses Nordic skiing as a vehicle to make people understand what the warming trends are doing to historical ways of living. The video is getting some really cool comments from a lot of people who are not skiers, never have been and never will be. So in that regard it has been a great way to one, introduce the sport to the general public, and two, make them see blatantly that [skiing] is something that is being directly affected by global warming and the loss of snow.
["Belarus" performed by Low. Video courtesy of Sub Pop]
Low is a band that is based in Duluth, Minnesota but has an international following. Their music has been described as slowcore but basically they do very sparse, dark and harmonious songs. Since Duluth is such a small town, and few artists live there, I eventually met and became good friends with Low’s bandleader, Alan Sparhawk. Certainly Al’s music has influenced me, but it could also be said that skiing and running and outdoor pursuits have also, through me and some other friends, rubbed off on Al. The two mentalities eventually melded when I went on tour with Al and his side project The Black Eyed Snakes to Utah and Colorado. We skied during the day and the Snakes performed at the local pubs at night. On that tour we also poached the OR on-snow demo, set up the band near the Garmont booth (used their power) and played a full pirate set before the demo was over. Needless to say I have been lucky as a filmmaker to have such talented musicians in my town and also to have access to some of their music for my films.
So it was a very interesting for me when Alan approached me one fall day on a trail run and asked me if I would make a video for "Belarus," a track on the new Low album Drums and Guns. He wanted something that had to do with skiing, and that was about all he said. The song obviously brought up stereotypes of the place Belarus: gray, winter both ugly and beautiful. As I listened to it more however, I started to think about Duluth and about how we would be the area most like Belarus in the US. We are both ugly and beautiful. But if you asked the common person in Duluth about their town, they would say it was gorgeous. It’s interesting how as humans we tend to overlook the ugliness and the industry that surrounds us more and more, and how we can be in denial about the way we are treating our planet. Outdoor athletes, however, cannot ignore it. We live it, we breathe it, we taste it. I have always felt that silent sports, and films about silent sports, were the perfect way to expose environmental issues and this video was my first attempt at it. Ironically, the winter of ’07 in northern Minnesota played right into our hands. We had almost no snow, and then we had none. So it was like [nature] was following the script perfectly.
Perhaps the reactions to this video have been the biggest story however. I get more reaction and comments from the artsy, NYC crowd and the indie music kids about the film than I do from typical outdoor enthusiasts. Perhaps because it is preaching to the choir? I am thankful however that a band like Low — who has toured with bands like Radiohead, and now this summer Wilco — has taken the chance to use Nordic skiing as way to enhance their beautiful song and expose people who will never ski to the pain a skier feels when they have the jones to get out and rip but can’t due to global warming and a total absence of snow.