Snowboarding. Always different, always the same. Most people, when asked what it is about it that they love so much, will cite the 'freedom' of the act of riding itself. This can, of course, mean absolutely anything to anyone, from a grom taking their first tentative side-slipped turns, to a pro getting ready to drop in on their first AK line of the year. That's snowboarding. Always different. Always the same. Open to anyone, and fun for all.
And yet, despite this, most snowboarding films are anything but inclusive, offering only one snapshot of that experience and that usually at the most extreme end of the spectrum. Seeing these films is impressive and awe-inspiring, obviously. But it's a little like being asked to admire an oil-rich oligarch's latest super yacht. You can admire it, certainly. But empathize with it? Love it? Not so much. It's just too far outside the realm of our own experience.
There's a place for this, of course. Everyone needs heroes pushing the envelope, and providing dreams for the rest of us to aspire to. But I think we can all agree that there is far more to snowboarding than just this.
That's why films like the documentary "Sleeping Giants" -- which in 25 short minutes investigates the snowboarding scene in China -- offer a rich alternative to most cut/bang/stomp snowboarding flicks. Because a film like this isn't really about showcasing the progression at the cutting edge of the sport, or being a marketing platform for an energy drinks or a snowboard brand. Instead, it is about showcasing a very different area of shredding by focusing on a particular scene, its relationship to snowboarding and the experience it offers. It is, in other words, a real documentary, and more like the snowboarding experience for 99 percent of people out there.
"Sleeping Giants" also tells a genuinely fascinating story about how snowboarding in China is flourishing under very different circumstances to those that saw it explode in Western society. There's next to no acceptance from mainstream Chinese culture, something that makes snowboarding itself is a good metaphor for a society that finds itself involved in "an interesting tug of war between old and new" as filmmaker Lebogang Rasethaba puts it in the film.
Watching the world these Chinese riders inhabit is a little like stepping back to a snowboarding year zero. What riding footage there is tends to be grainy handheld shots of kids taking their first turns, stoked locals patiently waiting in lift-lines, and local pros such as Xiaohu and Zhang Wei holding it down. These guys are riding icy hillocks and indoor snowdomes that make VT look like BC -- 'white streets in brown backcountry,' in Tobias Ludescher's memorable phrase -- and having the time of their lives doing so.
A key figure in this story is Steve Zdarksy, an Austrian who first went to China in 2000 to study Chinese and Economics. He is credited with creating the country's first half pipe and parks, organizing the Nanshan Open and generally kickstarting the entire scene in the vast country. It's good to see this type of snowboarding pioneer, as influential in his own way as somebody like Jeremy Jones or Shaun White, getting the coverage and props he deserves for opening the channels of snowboarding communication between China and the rest of the world.
There's a rich seam of calculated nostalgia in snowboarding right now, from the Bluebird Wax 'It was better when you hated us' tagline, to a collective desire to go back to a more innocent pre-Olympic time that seems to be the common reaction to the Sochi slopestyle controversy. Whether you think that notion is so much Western naval-gazing, the gritty, gutsy world depicted in "Sleeping Giants" certainly offers a vision of different, purer type of snowboarding experience.
When asked to sum up why he returns each year, despite the travel difficulties and the inferior conditions, Nils Arvidsson says snowboarding in China is more about the overall experience of travel and shared life experience than just the riding itself. "It's more like you're having fun here." And isn't that supposed to be the whole point?