Full Frame Review: Samuel In the Clouds & Timberline

We imagine things will always stay the same and the engines that drive a region are stable. And then something catastrophic happens. The prime element that energizes an area disappears and the locals are left wondering if there is a future for them. Full Frame Film Festival’s double feature of Samuel in the Clouds and Timberline tackles this issue on two different continents.

Timberline is a short film about what happens when a Navy base in the mountains of West Virginia is shutdown and auctioned off. Now that probably makes no sense to have the Navy operating so far from water, but the base was there to support the nearby Timberline observation station. Back in the ’50s, the military cleared off the top of a mountain and built a major listening station with huge dishes to pick up signals from sky and space. In the post-9/11 world, the government turned over control of the listening station to the NSA and thus the Navy base that housed 450 people was ruled unnecessary. The locals of Sugar Grove are in shock since the base was the major economic engine. It seems that the NSA doesn’t quite put the revenue into the area like the Navy. In barely 15 minutes, director Elaine McMillion Sheldon and her crew covers the anxieties of a small town that fears it will shrivel up and vanish from the map. The film is colorful with a three-legged dog and locals upset that the governor wouldn’t buy the base for a $1 to turn into a women’s prison. There’s a bit of tension when a few guys suspected to be part of the NSA pop up in the background of an interview.

Samuel in the Clouds takes us down to Bolivia and up Mount Chacaltaya to the world’s highest ski resort. We get an intimate look at the life of Samuel Mendoza who runs the place. However this is not a wacky Bravo reality show about ski bums. For decades, this resort was able to operate year round. The secret was the giant glacier that made it an extreme skier’s dream. Sadly since around 2000, the glacier has melted away so that Samuel view of the mountain is rather bare. Instead of ski bums, most of the guests who are driven up on buses are merely there to walk to the peak, enjoy the view and sip a little tea. The lack of snow has devastated Samuel’s business since walking folks don’t burn money like skiers. Samuel thinks it’s just a rough patch, but his neighbor on the mountain top is studying the climate and knows this is part of Climate Change. The glacier is not coming back anytime. Samuel doesn’t want to give up on the family business.

Director Pieter Van Eecke have crafted a documentary that could be passed off to the moviegoers as a foreign art house film. It starts off with a messy and slushy Bolivian ritual that includes a bands, dozens of women in traditional Peruvian dress dancing and animal sacrifice. The camera follows Samuel around without having him talk too much about his situation to the camera. The resort’s main house dangerously sits on the side of the mountain like a residence in a science fiction film. The camera work brings out the amazing beauty of life in the Andes. Even the climate change element isn’t turned into a boring Al Gore lecture. The basic element that matters is that Samuel is devoted to this resort and so badly wants his glacier to return. But how can this happen? Samuel in the Clouds ought to be submitted for the Best Foreign Language Oscar.

Samuel in the Clouds – trailer from Clin d'oeil films on Vimeo.

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