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Filmmaker Tells Story of Courage, Triumph in Grand Canyon

Courtesy of Michael Brown/The Weight of Water

The Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival begins today. Many of this year’s films celebrate the Grand Canyon, a nod to the national park’s 100th anniversary. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with director Michael Brown about his film “The Weight of Water.” It tells the story of two blind kayakers—Erik Weihenmayer and Lonnie Bedwell—and their descent through the legendary rapids of the Colorado River.

Michael Brown: They were in their own kayaks, and they used different methods to get down the river. Erik uses a system of radio headsets where he talks to his guide Harlan [Taney], and Lonnie would just listen for his guides yelling to him. And the film focuses on Eric’s story moreso, but Lonnie’s there and a fun part of it.

Melissa Sevigny: So Michael, what drew you to telling their story?

For me this story goes back many years. Back in the year 2000 I was climbing Mount Everest for the first time…. I met this blind guy named Erik Weihenmayer. And I didn’t know how to talk to him at first, because I’d never met a blind person before. To explain to him that I’m a filmmaker and wondering if he’d seen any of my films, I didn’t know the right words to use. Looking back on that now it’s kind of funny, but… over the years we’ve done a lot of projects together.

In the trailer to the film, Erik says something interesting, he says: {Erik's voice from film}: "I hate it when people tell me that anything is possible." So if the message of the film is not “anything is possible,” then what would you say the story is really about?

What Erik means when he says he hates it when someone says anything is possible, a lot of his life he’s been kind of this super-blind guy and it’s not a moniker that he likes. Because you can’t do anything. You can do a lot if you work at it really hard. And then at some point you go beyond that level where your skill is enough, and you just have to—like he says at one point in the film—you just have to trust and give it a whirl. 

So a lot of us experience the Grand Canyon as a very visual spectacle, and obviously, you’re a filmmaker, so your medium is the colors and the shapes of the canyon. I wonder whether following Erik and Lonnie through their journey, did that change anything about the way you experienced the Grand Canyon?    

When I’m out on the trail or doing something, I’ll close my eyes just to get a comparative feeling, but I can always open them in half a second. But to think about what it’s like to be in the chaos of whitewater, and not be able to open your eyes, and not be able to see it, really when you wanted to—if you had a blindfold on you’d be trying to tear that thing off. But he can’t do that. So he’s going into these things where it’s only sound and sensation. It’s absolutely terrifying for him.

{Erik’s voice from film}

People will often ask, why did Erik climb Mount Everest if he can’t see the view? And really the view, is like a tenth of one percent of the experience. You’re still there for the times with your friends, and the good things that come with being with friends and doing something hard and sharing triumph together.

Michael Brown, thanks for speaking with me today.

Thanks for having me on your radio show.   

“The Weight of Water" premieres at the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival Saturday night at 8pm.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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