Colette McInerney Shares Thoughts About Never Not Collective, and Pretty Strong

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If you haven’t seen something about Never Not Collective’s kickstarter for their film project, Pretty Strong, you’ve probably been living under a rock. No surprise here: a film made by talented women climbers, about talented women climbers, is in high demand. At least the 1135 backers of the film seem to think so… Less than half way through their campaign, they’ve already exceeded their funding goal. 

I had some questions about the film, so I reached out to NNC for answers. I hope you’ll enjoy this interview with Colette McInerney, one of the talented artists behind Never Not Collective.

Fringe’s Folly: Women climbers have been pushing the sport forward for a long time. Miriam Underhill, Loulou Boulaz, and Kitty Calhoun paved the way for other pioneers such as Lynn Hill, the late Kei Taniguchi, and Ashima Shiraishi. There have always been women at the forefront of climbing (in spite of dramatically larger percentages of male participants). So why do you think it has taken so long for a film like this to come along?

Colette McInerney: I think the answer boils down to sheer numbers. While all the points you highlighted above are indeed true that was still a very small percentage of the climbing media at the time and was still predominantly men at the top of their climbing medium. At the moment there are WAY more women in climbing than even when I started 15 years ago but many of them are still new(ish) to climbing and likely wouldn’t be the first to pick up a camera and film. In my opinion, as in developing routes, filming and photography takes a certain level of expertise in the sport and I just believe percentage-wise there are still far less numbers of women at that level of the game. But that’s already changing lots, and there are way more women photographers and filmers out there all the time.

 

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Leslie Hittmeier. Photo| Never Not Collective.

FF: Of course, there have been segments with women climbers (as you noted in your kickstarter). I remember Heidi Wirtz on the Wasp, Beth Rodden on Meltdown, a segment about Katie Brown, Steph Davis free soloing Pervertical Sanctuary… Do you plan to emulate those segments, just do more of them; or do you plan to completely change the narrative in Pretty Strong?

CM: I won’t pretend to know exactly what Pretty Strong will look like in its finality. I’ve shot enough climbing to know that’s a bit futile. The project has a focus and with a lot of potentials, but over all it is a documentary and we just want to be able to be there to capture those sends if and when they happen. Overall the idea would be to shape it more like the Dosage-style films I grew up watching which had multiple locations, lots of characters and just down and dirty hard climbing.

FF: According to your kickstarter, “This isn’t a film about gender imbalance or the sexualization of women or what it’s like to have your period at the crag. This is a film about 5 of the best climbers in the world doing what they do best: crushing.” And yet, the fact that it is a feature film only about women, and the title itself, leads pretty obviously to some inherent gender discussion. How do you plan to toe that line?

CM: Yeah, I think Shelma put it well when she told me “even if you don’t want to make a movie about gender imbalance you are going to have those conversation and know that will be part of the film.” I get it. I know that. I too am a woman. The thing is as women, and perhaps for minorities though I can’t speak as one, these things in society are our truth. They are something we experience since birth and it bleeds into everything we do. So even if the movie is “just” about a strong women climber at the top of her game that reality is part of her story.. Those experiences will come out one way or another.  The fact that making an all women’s film is even a thing says it all. It will be political in the current climate whether that’s the “point” or not. For me the point is I’m passionate about climbing, I’m passionate about women and I want to share a story that I feel incredibly tied to and I don’t think is shared and showed enough.

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Julie Ellison. Photo| Never Not Collective.

FF: I know you can’t tell us WHO the five climbers are yet, but can you give us any hints? For example, do you want to focus on any specific discipline, location, nationality, ethnicity, etc?

CM: The idea is we don’t want this film to the one and ONLY women’s climbing film out there. There should be all kinds of films about women in climbing, doing different mediums, styles etc. For me, my vision has always been to have a mainly sport climbing and bouldering film, because those are the mediums of climbing I’m inspired by and have followed over the years. Also I want to film with women who are climbing and pushing themselves and the sport right now. If that’s the long-time sponsored climber cool, if that’s an undercover crusher cool. I think we will make an effort to show women of color and some people outside of the limelight because there are so many that meet those standards that we haven’t heard about.  

FF: How do you quantify what makes someone one of the “5… best climbers in the world?” Is it about hardest redpoints, first ascents, tolerance for risk, tolerance for pain, quality of spirit, ability to inspire? All of the above? None of the above?

CM: Most likely it will be seasonal. The reality is we have about a year to follow some climbers around and film what they do. Only so many harder ascents will happen in a year. Someone who is on top of their sport this year, may have an injury or be down the next. It’s not about sizing up climbers to be THE BEST it’s about inspiring women who are at the top of their sport overall. We’re not going to split hairs over 14b or 14c.

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Never Not Collective and a bunch of stoked ass women and a sweet dog. Photo| Never Not Collective.

FF: I want to press you on that answer just a little. If all we take into account is numbers (excepting Beth Rodden’s Meltdown, which is one of the hardest rated, and still unrepeated trad climbs in the world), then I don’t think any female climbers objectively crack the list of “Top 5 in the world”. Right? Not Ashima, or Margo, or anyone else, whether bouldering, sport, or other. If we take things other than numbers into account, such as boldness, then I think you could make a very strong case for someone like Silvia Vidal being one of the top in the world. So is this “5 Best Climbers in the World” something you guys actively intend to pursue and define, or is it just marketing copy?

CM: For sure. I think the conversation is an interesting one that happens in climbing all the time. How do we define “the best” in a sport full of so many mediums? Unfortunately in this case it is a bit of a copy mistake or taken a little bit out of context. Our original tag line is “A movie with your favorite climbing chicks” and the copy should have read “some of the best female climbers” or something to that degree. In fact I don’t even know where the number five came from! There likely will be more than five women in the film. But those decisions won’t be finalized until we are well into filming. I think these facts got distorted during the release when people were really psyched to get as many specifics as they could for media resources. We definitely had copy that went out with inaccurate print like “The first all women’s climbing film.” which is also not true. I think US media likes to use these kind of words because we’re so used to and it just makes things sound more interesting. I think the idea behind this film is awesome without “first” or “best” in the title. The concepts stands on it’s own 😉
But another reason we started using language like “best” at times was to indicate this was a film about top female climbers. Not women just getting into climbing, or women finding balance with their lives and climbing, or women who are iconic in the sport. It was a simple way to simply say “top female athletes of the moment.”
My goal is to shoot with women this next year who are being currently active, so it would focus less on some more iconic female climbers, or someone who has an injury this year, and focus more on women who are trained up and motivated for hard climbing in 2018. My original vision of the film was focused mainly on sport climbing and bouldering because these are my areas of interest and what gets me psyched in climbing. I’m open to trad routes, but will likely steer away from alpine climbing and fast and light ascents. I think these are equally badass but not consistent with what I want this piece to focus on. I’m not trying to encompass everything about women in climbing in one film, that would be crazy. I guess we’ll need another film for these other badass women 🙂
In terms of what defines best, I think that’s an on going conversation between all climbers and what makes climbing so unique. It’s pretty futile in my opinion to say one medium of climbing is harder, better, best than another. They are all really so unique and that fact that they are still defined as the same sport is pretty extraordinary. I think my intent is to highlight a group of women that are performing this year. They will surely have different styles strengthens and capabilities. I hope different women will see some of themselves in one of the styles and women in the film and find motivation in that.

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Daila Ojeda. Yeah, she’s Pretty Strong… Photo| Colette McInerney

FF: Tell me a little bit about Never Not Collective. All four of you were obviously very successful in the outdoor industry individually. How did you find one another? Was this always an idea that you had in the backs of your minds? Are there other solely-women media houses like yours?

CM: I have thought about working with a production company or trying to start one before, but Shelma beat me to it because she’s such a go getter! I’ve worked with other female creators and I’ve assisted for lots of men. I think it’s not really that normal in the outdoor freelance world (at least climbing) to create production houses. Lots of people like being solo, so it’s kind of a personal preference.

FF: There have certainly been male-dominated media houses that produced media with women protagonists. Do you guys think you will be provided the same opportunities to produce media with men protagonists? Do you want those opportunities?

CM: Yes of course. We will definitely shoot with men. We want to tell lots of different kinds of stories. This movie is just one story we want to tell.

 

FF: Come on – give me something juicier than that! Seriously, what’s it like trying to make your way in a male-dominated industry? Is it like this story from Fast Company where “Penelope Gazin and Kate Dwyer faced a lot of sexism and condescension when they launched their e-commerce marketplace for weird art–that is until they introduced an imaginary cofounder named Keith”?

CM: Another interesting question. I actually heard this story on NPR. It’s pretty fascinating how even in this day there are such blatant examples of the cultural standards we place on ourselves in terms of gender. Luckily we’re working in the outdoor industry which I like to think is a forward thinking, non traditional type of community. That being said it is dominated by men, and largely white men. For many years that’s been the main audience, who companies have sold to and who make up the companies, so I think it’s been easy to see why. The reality is the community is changing and it’s happening fast. Most of the companies we talked to this year were incredibly interested in having different voices in the outdoor world in order to speak with these “newer” climbers. Those business owners are kind of saying “hey I don’t really recognize this audience I don’t know how to speak to them and you guys seems to be able to.”
Of course that doesn’t answer your question about whether we think we’ll get the “fair shot” when working with men in industry. But I think the biggest hurtle will be proving ourselves as creatives over all. We are still new as a team so we have to pay our dues like everyone else. I still think we have the potential to tell different kinds of stories even with men, so if companies like our work and vision I don’t see us being women being the defining factor. I’ve shot with a lot of men over the years and I think when they ask me to shoot they are aware it’s a different kind of energy and sometimes a different kind of trip. Just like anything there are different styles and vision that work better for certain shoots and less for others. I think if we create good content we’ll be able to find plenty of work.

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The team in one of their more serious moments. Photo| Never Not Collective.

FF: How has the general response been to NNC? Are you swamped with work? Do you feel like you’re swimming upstream, or beating your heads against the wall ever?

CM: I think production always feels a bit up stream. But yeah being a new collective means all of us have to shift our priorities and learn how we all work together. But at the same time it’s obvious from the kickstarter that there is power in numbers. I would have never pulled this off by myself.

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Shelma Jun. Photo| Never Not Collective.

FF: What advice would you give to young climbers / media makers looking to get some skin in the game? Would it be the same for people of all genders? How might it differ?

CM: I think you just have to pay your dues. I’ve never had anyone in the climbing industry that hasn’t wanted to work with me because I’m a girl. Though I have had photographers admit to preferring young guys as photo assistants in order to schlep more gear around. So ladies start training! Photography and freelance is a hard world overall and it’s not for everyone. It’s stressful, it’s not secure, it’s very physical; you really have to love it more than getting paid. In a way (besides the fact that you might be less likely to find climbing in the first place because you are a girl) these harsh parts about freelance are a greater barrier to entry than your gender.

 

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Colette McInerney. Photo| Never Not Collective.

Big thanks to Colette for taking the time to provide such thoughtful answers, and to the rest of the NNC team for sharing these excellent photos! Again, you can support the Pretty Strong kickstarter here. But hurry up! Time is running out.

 

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