Adventure Film Festival 2015: Best of the Fest

The 2015 Adventure Film Festival closed on Sunday night in Boulder, amid tears and cheers in remembrance of the festival’s inspiration: the late climber and adventure filmmaker Jonny Copp. We bounced around at the Festival this weekend to bring you some highlights.

Landfill Harmonic 

Watching environmental engineer Favio Chavez teach children in the impoverished Paraguayan town of Cateura to play classical tunes on scrap metal is like watching rain douse a desert. The “desert,” though, is home to one of South America’s largest landfills. And the rain is a downpour of violins humming in unison. Chavez’s dream turns garbage littering streets and streams into flutes and cellos. After finding a craftsman who learns to build these instruments, Chavez opens free music lessons for Cateura’s aspiring musicians, who later make their name, the Recycled Orchestra, known around the world.

While directors Brad Allgood and Graham Townsley present a scope limited the social aspect of the environmental disaster, the lost understanding of the environmental consequences is outweighed by the memorable characters. In a Newtonian sense, Chavez is the opposing force to the plague that’s gripped the rural wasteland. His eager determination to impact the lives of young musicians counteracts the devastation a barren environment creates. For example, he helps make the orchestra a community asset in Cateura after one of Paraguay’s most devastating floods engulfed the town in 2014, providing housing for families who lost their homes. The children repay him by learning to mute their personal instability for the sake of the band’s success.

The face of poverty as painted by the filmmakers is bittersweet. Each scene leads the viewer to find beauty in unexpected places. And as time passes, the musical accomplishments of the orchestra become an encapsulating portrayal of human potential that leaves the viewer awestruck.
–Natalia Bayona


We Are Fire

Champa Pal’s husband was murdered for his land.

When he was killed on October 9, 2011 in Uttar Pradesh, India, everything was stolen from Pal. As a woman without money, the police would not act on her behalf.

It wasn’t until Pal joined the Gulabi Gang, a women’s movement formed by Sampat Pal in Northern India in 2006, that Champa Pal received justice. The Gulabi Gang fights for the rights of women and teaches them to sew, so that they do not have to rely on men for money.

This evocative film revealed the unifying power of women and the strength of a community determined to affect change in the midst of oppression. The bright pink garments worn by the women stands out against the bleak landscape and offers hope of a more equality minded future.

–Anja Semanco



“Drawn,” produced and directed by artist, rock climber and father Jeremy Collins, is an emotionally evocative work of art – literally. The film combines Collins’ famous illustrations with footage from adventures to four exotic summits, as he searches for closure after the death of his good friend Jonny Copp. The result is a multimedia experience that includes a live drawing performance overlaid with beautiful projections of stars.

After Copp passed away in a tragic avalanche, Collins set out on an epic journey to find balance between the necessity of adventure and the importance of home and family.

On one trip to a summit in Venezuela, the crew never made it to the top due to multiple setbacks, including fractured bones and abysmal weather. They learned that even though everything doesn’t always go as planned, there is joy and meaning in the journey to these incredible destinations.

The film tells the story of heartbreak, recovery, happiness and family through its inspiring imagery, handcrafted illustrations and touching soundtrack. After witnessing Collins’ struggle with finding meaning after tragedy and discovering solace in his family, the audience was left with a new perspective on the brevity of life.

–Lauren Price


Knee Deep

The Adventure Film Festival commemorated the second anniversary of the Boulder flood on Sunday with Knee Deep. The 17-minute documentary examined the role volunteers play in natural disaster response by spotlighting the Mudslingers, a group of friends that mobilized a clean-up effort through social media before the rain had even subsided.

The flood that tore through Boulder in September 2013 swept away mountain roads, displaced about 11,000 people and damaged more than 19,000 homes. Starting with just a few supplies from Home Depot, the Mudslingers saw an opportunity to rally support and help restore their community after watching it go under water.

The group of friends and strangers was out removing mud and debris from homes, clearing roads and digging cars out of ditches when President Obama called on the National Guard and declared a state of emergency in Boulder. The team ultimately provided aid to more than 400 households.

Aly Nicklas, Knee Deep’s co-director and producer, cofounded the Mudslinger group, which began as a ragtag crew of 25 and grew to more than 1,000 volunteers by the time winter weather forced the group to curtail its relief efforts.

The film examined the tipping point that transforms someone from a community member to a participant. Many who volunteered said in the film that they didn’t have experience in disaster relief, but they still felt called give their time to the effort. Through the forces of empathy and community, Knee Deep empowers individuals to pick up a shovel and take recovery into their own hands.

–Katy Canada

In the Fight for Consistently Good Beer, Avery Brewing Makes a Move

Boulder Stand reporter Ted Phillips poses in front of a vat of waste at Avery Brewing's current facility. (Photo/ Avery McGaha)

CU graduate student Ted Phillips poses in front of a vat of waste at Avery Brewing’s current facility. (Photo/ Avery McGaha)

By Avery McGaha

Oxygen is one of beer’s many mortal enemies. If too much oxygen finds its way into a commercial brewing tank, a batch of that company’s signature craft ale – worth tens of thousands of dollars – could transform into a vat of disgusting, worthless slosh.

But as the craft industry grows, commercial brewers are finding that investing in science, and the staff and facilities to conduct careful monitoring and research, can prevent many subtle and expensive mistakes.

The fight against these costly errors has driven Avery Brewing Co., a Boulder-based brewery in operation for over twenty years, to embark on a $27 million project to build a much larger facility. Located just west of Gunbarrel, the new 95,922-square-foot facility will provide twice the production capacity of the current space, as well as corporate offices and a restaurant.

But the most important change for customers is one they can’t see: The facility will expand Avery’s ability to control quality. That’s because making good-tasting beer, and making it consistently, requires a sophisticated suite of tests and controls. And that means a lot of space for scientists, instruments, and incubators.

Sara Ferber, a quality control chemist for Avery Brewing, said the new space highlights the importance of chemistry and biology in the brewing process.

“I think it surprises people that we have as many scientists as we do,” she said.

That includes five full-time scientists, experts in microbiology, molecular biology, and chemistry. And right now, those scientists have little more than a closet from which to work.

Their lab is about the size of a college dorm room, and packed with similar biological contaminants. In this tiny room, thankfully encased by windows, high lab tables surround the perimeter. That cuts the room’s walkable space nearly in half.

On the far wall is a bright red incubator – plastered with hilarious, cut-out caricatures of colleagues, reassembled with painter’s tape – that helps yeast samples grow. The other walls are covered in laptops, centrifuges, flasks and tubes. Some instruments are stacked on top of chemistry textbooks, others stuffed beneath fume hoods. Moving around in this space is impossible without scraping off sticky-notes, filled with equations and coffee stains.

One does get the sense that the scientists still manage to have fun. Many of the cluttered instruments have names, spread lovingly on each with a label maker. One of the most valuable tools is what they call “Contamatron,” which detects even the smallest presence of ATP, the energy source molecule present in every living cell.

Swipe a sample from inside a freshly cleaned brewing tank, and the brewers will know if there are still harmful bacteria living in it. If so, they’ll clean the tank until they cannot detect a single contaminant. That knowledge puts brewers at ease.

“It helps them sleep at night,” Ferber said.

In addition to lab space, the new facility will also house a pasteurizer, a machine designed to kill bacteria in the finished product. Ferber said that will be crucial to preventing the wrong strain of yeast from floating around in the air out of one beer – a sour beer, for example, which employs a special kind of yeast – and contaminating another.

That’s an easy mistake to make, if you’re not careful. But with the new space, Ferber and her colleagues will have the resources to be more careful, and consistent, than ever.

“We’re probably going to make better beer,” she said. “And we’re okay with that.”

Death Clock


National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

By Mollie Putzig

Life after death may reveal when someone died, and it might even help catch a killer.

Normally, clues like body temperature and insect larvae help forensic scientist determine time of death. But microbes, bacterial organisms found by the trillions throughout our bodies, may offer a more precise measurement–especially for longer time periods.

Some people donate their bodies to this research. Their corpses lie in the tall grass of a pine forest at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility, commonly called a human body farm. Scientists take samples of their skin and the soil beneath them to study how communities of microbes change as bodies decompose.

Jessica Metcalf, an evolutionary biologist working in the Knight Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, researches the postmortem microbiome, those tiny organisms that decompose us after we die. By tracking these organisms over time, she’s building a microbial clock to calculate the time since something, or someone, died.

On a normal day, Metcalf studies the microbial communities of dead mice. By scrutinizing the organisms living on their skin, she can calculate the rodents’ time of death within a few days.

“With this experiment what we found is that we could actually build a model and predict with really, really high accuracy how long an unknown sample had been dead,” Metcalf said.

Metcalf recently visited the body farm to determine if humans have a microbial clock like she’d seen in the mice. She said the microbes in the skin and soil samples from the body farm look promising.

“One of the things we’re trying to understand is, ‘how much of the decomposer communities associated with the mice are shared with the decomposer communities associated with the humans out in Texas?’” Metcalf said.

She and Sybil Bucheli, a forensic entomologist with Sam Houston State University who works at the body farm, hope their research of living organisms that grow on the dead can someday assist criminal investigations.

Every person has a unique microbiome, a bacterial signature that can’t be forged, according to research from the Argonne National Lab. Everywhere we go, we leave behind some of the living community that makes up our microbiome, like a time-stamped fingerprint.

This could allow crime investigators to identify the last people to contact a body before or after the person died.

Metcalf is conducting a second study of decomposing mice and their microbes. In her first experiment she placed 40 dead mice on boxes of soil. To make sure the only difference between them was the amount of time since death, she used mice that were all males of the same age and breed that were fed the same food.

“We just want to understand if there’s a pattern there before we get to the question of, alright, how do these various variables interrupt it?” Metcalf said.

Once she found evidence of a microbial clock, she repeated the experiment using various soils to see if soil type affected which microbes grew. She found that placing mice on desert, grassland or alpine soil didn’t significantly alter microbe growth.

She also tested the soils 10, 20 and 30 days after removing the mice, to see if postmortem microbes remain in soil over time.

“They did,” Metcalf said. “So that’s a big part of our second paper.”

If distinct human decomposer microbes remain in the soil, then soil samples might even help locate a buried body.

That’s still a long way off, she said, but Metcalf is confident that studying the life that depends on death could lead scientists to a microbial death clock.

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