A murky fall night in Portland sets the stage for the city’s premiere of Valhalla, the Sweetgrass Productions crew’s latest film. Inside, it has just been screened to a packed crowd the Aladdin theater, and the collective excitement is palpable. Three of the Sweetgrass boys stand tall at the end of the stage, welcoming questions of any kind. A hand goes up, and Director Ben Sturgulewski points to it. The man amid the viewers questions, aloud, what we’ve all been wondering in our own heads: Whether or not Valhalla is a real place. “It’s a state of mind, man” Ben replies, with a smirk that means that answer is only partly true; the rest, we’ll never know.
Valhalla is a work of art. It’s a ski film. It’s an allegory of the snow and of human nature. And Valhalla is — indeed — a state of mind, one that you can only get to by experiencing the film for yourself. I suspect that everyone I was seated with at the Portland premiere had a different experience, but I’m confident that we all walked out of that theater a little bit different than when we walked in.
The narrative of Valhalla is relatable, and it provides a solid anchor for the film as a whole. There are plenty of incredible, jaw-dropping ski and snowboard scenes (some that even defy logic itself), but these are held on the shoulders of the story (about a man driven to rediscover the “weightlessness of youth”) that carries the film to the very end. For skiers and non-skiers alike, this is a welcome change to the ski porn films we’ve come accustomed to seeing in the outdoor industry. It’s no stretch to say that the film connects emotionally with its viewers, which makes those beautiful segments of powder an undeniably more ardent experience. And the crowd watching wasn’t afraid to make themselves heard; hoots, hollers and howls were part of the show, and partly responsible for such a unique premiere. Ben put it this way:
“Having done a great many shows in front of every sort of audience, the shows we really end up remembering are the ones where people just lets loose and cheer and scream and howl. As we’re presenting a more artistic aspect of ski-filming, often our crowds are very respectful, which is definitely wonderful and appreciated, and has its place — but when you’ve seen the film a million times like we have, sooner or later you find yourself watching the audience reaction more than the film. It’s so awesome to hear people hoot and holler and bring an intensely live energy experience to the whole thing. Every public viewing is different and makes you watch your own work in an entirely new light, and the Portland show was just full of so many friends and fans all screaming together that it felt like a whole new film to us.”