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Big Sky Film Fest: 'An Accidental Life' confronts a climber's tragedy

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'An Accidental Life'

"An Accidental Life" is a portrait of climber Quinn Brett, who was paralyzed in an accident on El Capitan.

My parents' church is three blocks from Craig Hospital in Denver, Colorado. Craig sits on a little bit of a hill in the Swedish Medical Center complex, with lots of glass and lots of steel for a façade, which isn’t so far of a tortured analogy away from being an exoskeleton worn by the people who go there for rehabilitation for severe spinal injuries and have to learn how to do the things many people take for granted: walking, bending, standing, flexing, stretching.

And it’s where Quinn Brett began her journey into a different life than the one she envisioned herself leading as a high-climbing mountaineer known for swift ascents and bottomless endurance.

On Oct. 11, 2017, Brett fell over 100 feet on the Boot Flake of El Capitan in Yosemite, smashed her T12 vertebra, sliced her head open so badly that her scalp required 15 staples to close the wound, and suffered a spinal cord injury severe enough that she lost control of her legs.

“An Accidental Life” is a portrait of Brett experiencing a world through which she could no longer run, climb, dance and jump. 

A camera can’t grasp what it means to lose the sense of a literal part of yourself — all it can do is show Brett, again and again and again, coming to grips with the fact she is no longer who she envisioned herself to be and then, again and again and again, realizing parts of herself that she slowly and painfully grew or discovered through her process of healing and living.

"An Accidental Life" is a documentary that made me look away from my computer screen more than once because I couldn’t bear witness to the intimacy of loss and pain that director Henna Taylor captured of a woman who just a few months before had been literally on top of the world, climbing famous routes like the Diamond on Long’s Peak in Rocky Mountain National Park, Half Dome, Cerro Torre and other peaks and walls that unerringly capture climbers’ imaginations.

Toward the end of the film, Brett and Taylor and their friends go back to the base of the Diamond and there are a silent few seconds of Brett staring at the golden granite wall, her face upturned to capture the sun’s rays and tears threatening to fall from her eyes.

This documentary is also frank about the struggles people who lose mobility face when it comes to sexual intimacy, love, the future and the sheer frustrating nature of a body that does not do what it is commanded to do. Brett goes through a grieving process for herself, but also struggles through a sense of being unwanted, a fear of never finding anyone who will love her romantically and a fear of a future in which she is still stuck in her wheelchair 20 years after her accident.

Taylor’s camera doesn’t flinch from these considerations, even if sometimes you wish she would. But if she did, that would reduce the power of “An Accidental Life,” a documentary with the power to shift how a life is lived, or perhaps simply considered.

Thomas Plank is a former Missoulian and Independent Record journalist. When he is not working for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers, he is fly-fishing western Montana's rivers and considering better ways to expand his bookcase situation because let him tell you, he's running out of room already.

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