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Colette McInerney films Maria Fernanda Rodriguez Galvan as she climbs in Mexico. Photo courtesy of Leslie Hittmeier.

Can a Film With an All-Female Cast Be the Next Big Climbing Movie?

The Never Not Collective set out to make a movie about women climbers—not to navigate gender politics. But as the trio of Western producers has discovered with its new film, Pretty Strong, you can’t do one without the other.

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One sunny day not long ago, Maria Fernanda Rodriguez Galvan exhaled audibly, braced her left leg against the rock wall she was perched on, and stretched her left arm to grasp a knobby hold. She clipped into an anchor—and screamed. The primal sound echoed through the canyons of Mexico’s El Salto climbing area as she pounded the cliff with her palm and then let go, howling as she swayed in midair in her harness. She’d just “sent”—or successfully completed without falling, in climber-speak—a route that had been thwarting her for a week. The moment was about more than an athletic achievement, though. It was the Mexican climber’s triumphant return to the rock after a multi-year hiatus, and it had all been captured on camera.

Rodriguez Galvan’s jubilation would not have been memorialized for the world to see had documentary filmmakers shooting the climbing movie Pretty Strong, due out next month, not encouraged her to chalk back up. When they came knocking, she realized she needed to remind herself that she could get back out there—and she was happy to have cameras around when she did. Rodriguez Galvan wasn’t the only athlete on the filmmakers’ radars. A slew of elite climbers—including Nina Williams, Katie Lambert, Hazel Findlay, Jessa Goebel, Isabelle Faus, and Anna Liina Laitinen—had stories and talents to share.

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However, the threesome behind the Never Not Collective, a production company with Colorado ties, knew the athletes’ exploits would likely never have been committed to digital reel without their persistence. Not because their feats on rock weren’t worthy. Or because their narratives weren’t compelling. But because they’re all women.

co-producer Colette McInerney. Photo courtesy of Leslie Hittmeier.

Colette McInerney, Julie Ellison, and Leslie Hittmeier didn’t plan to make a “women’s climbing film”—at least, not one of the isn’t-it-cute-that-these-girls-are-playing-outside iterations that too often plague outdoor media. But as the women behind the Never Not Collective discovered, nailing the perfect balance between celebrating inspiring climbers who happen to be female and also downplaying the potential relevance of their gender requires just as much finesse as sending any of the routes featured in their film.

Fortunately, McInerney (who spent part of production in Estes Park but now works from the road in her van), Idaho-based Ellison, and Wyoming-based Hittmeier were well prepared for the attempt. All three are climbers who’d worked as filmmakers, photographers, or journalists. Furthermore, producing an all-female climbing flick was an agreed-upon goal from the early days of the group’s founding in 2017. Although Never Not has paid the bills through commercial work for Black Diamond, REI, and KOA, Pretty Strong remained a key project, one that made sense for two reasons. First, McInerney had already amassed many hard drives’ worth of footage over the previous two and a half years on her own. And second, they were motivated: Amid a boom in climbing that’s bringing more and more women to crags and indoor gyms, women remain notably outnumbered in most climbing media. That anecdotal observation had long rankled the trio, who craved seeing more females in the spotlight. “Women climb, too,” Ellison says. “We do rad shit, and it’s not being shown to us.”

So they fact-checked themselves by reviewing the high-production climbing films of the past 20 or so years, and they were right. Of the 91 segments contained in the movies they watched, only eight featured a female main character. Of six narrative-style feature films, none starred a woman.

Inequality issues aside, the omission felt like a missed opportunity. The climbing-focused Reel Rock tour draws more than 150,000 people worldwide every year, and over the past five years, the financial and critical successes of films like Meru, The Dawn Wall, and Free Solo have proven that even mainstream audiences get stoked on climbing stories. What’s more, recent all-female films in the similarly male-dominated skiing world—such as 2014’s Pretty Faces and 2018’s All In—opened to cheers. As such, an all-female climbing film felt like a no-brainer for Never Not’s first feature-length project. “We were like, ‘Why should we wait for someone else to make this film?’  ” Ellison says. “ ‘It’s not going to happen. We need to do it.’”

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McInerney’s original vision was to sidestep gender concerns almost entirely. Let the level of climbing speak for itself, she thought. Ellison had similar notions. “My dad told me that women’s achievements shouldn’t be raised up because they’re done by a woman,” Ellison says. “They should be raised up because they’re achievements. That’s always stuck with me.”

Co-producer Julie Ellison. Photo courtesy Calder Davey.

When the fledgling production company took to Kickstarter for funding, however, it changed its tack. The movie’s female-forward tag line—“All your favorite climbing chicks in one film”—and the emphasis on the Never Not Collective’s female producers (itself a rarity in filmmaking) signaled that the marketing of the film wouldn’t shy away from the issue of gender. Even the film’s name is a direct nod to discrimination at the crag. “It’s an insult when a man tells a woman she’s ‘pretty strong,’” says Boulder-based climber Nina Williams, one of the featured athletes—as in, pretty strong for a girl.

Ultimately, the Never Not Collective had decided the important thing was getting the movie made—and that meant strategic marketing. “We needed the hook,” Ellison says. “That’s how these conversations start: ‘Hey, there are no transgender people in such-and-such media.’ In the beginning, you’re going to have to be talking about the fact that they’re transgender. Eventually, it’s just a person doing something cool.”

Their bet that others were just as hungry as they were for more gender equality in climbing media paid off: They received $79,383 from 1,481 people. That figure was nearly $30,000 more than their goal.

With money in the bank account, the women set out to make the movie. When the cameras cued for action, though, the Never Not team was adamant about showing their chosen athletes as climbers, not female climbers. No interview questions about feeling objectified. No talking about getting your period on the wall. In fact, no mention of what it’s like to be a woman and a climber at all. Instead, dramatic big-wall ascents, novel bouldering problems, and finger-bloodying holds on sport climbs dominate the intimate, close-enough-to-see-the-chalk-fly imagery. Along the way, viewers also get a glimpse into each athlete’s personality and story. “We’re really interested in introducing these athletes to the greater climbing community,” Ellison says, pointing out that even the best female climbers in the world can be largely unknown. “It’s, ‘Look how badass she is,’ but also, ‘Look how silly she is.’”

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That, of course, is documentary filmmaking 101. Personalities—whether big or quirky or serious—are the lifeblood of this nonfiction cinematic tradition. Pretty Strong took shape as the team contacted climbers they found most intriguing, aiming for wall-scalers who represented a mix of climbing styles, cultures, and ages. They figured out who was healthy, who was available during the shooting timeline, and who was willing to let a camera crew follow her around for weeks on end. In some cases—such as during the segment about Williams teaming up with California’s Katie Lambert to attempt a 5.13b (read: Spider-Woman territory) route on Yosemite’s Middle Cathedral—Never Not simply tagged along on their stars’ previously planned objectives. In others, they took a stronger hand in orchestrating the story, like when they set up West Virginia’s Goebel and British-born Findlay on a climbing excursion meets cultural immersion road trip across Appalachia and the South.

Co-producer Leslie Hittmeier. Photo courtesy of Colette McInerney.

Although a handful of segments—including a big-wall speed ascent at Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park—didn’t make the cut, a viable structure emerged. The crew divided Pretty Strong into five stand-alone vignettes, with three longer narratives and two shorter, more stylistic pieces. Audiences get to know the characters through small moments: Goebel sips a beer while belaying Findlay at Kentucky’s Red River Gorge, and Isabelle Faus attacks the same bouldering problem in Colorado’s Clear Creek Canyon despite fall after fall. Maybe most important, as the climbers cling to sheer cliffs and scamper up walls barefoot, nobody will be thinking, Oh, that’s pretty good—for a girl. In fact, once seated, audiences will likely disregard the fact that this is a so-called women’s film. And therein lies the filmmakers’ neatest trick: By featuring 10 women, nobody sticks out as the token female. They’re just climbers.

David Weingarden, director of concerts and programming for the Boulder Theater, where Pretty Strong will premiere next month, predicts the film will attract a large audience—men included. When the theater screened the ski flick Pretty Faces several years ago, “plenty of men came out,” he says. “It totally sold out, beyond everyone’s expectations. To have something of a similar vein with the rock climbing crowd will be really special.”

In some ways, the filmmakers wish they could just focus on their project without getting into gender politics at all, but they’ve accepted that shooting this kind of groundbreaking climbing movie will necessarily call attention to itself. They just hope their larger goals—to introduce their favorite climbers and to inspire all viewers, gender be damned—don’t get lost along the way.

Where To See It: Pretty Strong will premiere at the Boulder Theater on January 10; it will then tour nationwide through partnerships with brand sponsors, climbing gyms, and outdoor stores. Visit nevernotcollective.com for dates and showtimes.

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