TODAY THERE’S ALMOST A FORMULA TO SKI FILMS: some b-roll, a catchy song and then anywhere from three to 30 minutes of ski action. Mallory Duncan wanted to break away from that. Inspired by his own poetry, Duncan set out to produce something different—something that spoke to him, and hopefully spoke to others as well. With the release of The Blackcountry Journal this fall, Duncan combined poetry, jazz and powdery turns. It’s hardly the standard ski film, and that was by design. The video is about the self-expression and improvisation found in both skiing and jazz—a film that resonates in skiers and musicians alike. Winning Snow Sports Film of the Year at the 2023 Banff Mountain Film Festival, the short movie will leave you tapping your feet, praying for powder and reflecting on self-identity in an industry often dominated by the mass appeal.
Growing up in the East Bay Area of San Francisco, Duncan wasn’t raised around skiing. But his father loved the sport, and family trips to Alpine Meadows, now part of Palisades Tahoe, became the norm. Passing through the ranks of ski school, Duncan found himself hucking off cliffs and jumps. Even at an early age he knew racing and its rules weren’t for him. He was stoked on the freedom of freeride—it was where Duncan needed to be. He moved to Bend, OR after attending college in Vermont, leaving his job selling skis to chase the real thing. But it didn’t go as planned.
Three days following his resignation, Duncan tore the ACL, PCL and MCL in his left knee while in the backcountry of Teton National Park in Wyoming. Still, throughout recovery there was still one thing on his mind: filming. Returning from the injury a year later, Duncan would shoot all the skiing seen in the film with director Patrick Elmore. In college Duncan would frequently backcountry ski with Pete Elmore, the oldest of the two Elmore brothers. Through Pete, Duncan would meet Patrick, a filmmaker, and the two began to collaborate in March of 2021.
Duncan envisioned a ski film that combined storytelling and his love for jazz music. In the third grade, he began to play saxophone, and still playing today, he knew that jazz needed to be included in part of the film. But Duncan didn’t exactly know what that looked like. Having shot all the skiing in the film, he decided to get creative.
“I knew that there had to be a jazz musician, and we wanted to interact with a jazz musician on the streets somewhere,” said Duncan. “Which is kind of a juxtaposition of my experience having grown up in the Bay Area but driving to Lake Tahoe. I’m always between this mountainous, urban environment.”
But he didn’t exactly know what he was looking for. Asking friends and family if they knew anyone, it was Duncan’s godmother, Tina Fernandez, who answered the call. Working as a school teacher in Los Angeles, CA, Fernandez recommended a percussionist who worked at her school, Clarence Ross, better known as Chazz. After an initial phone call, Duncan would go on to interview Ross for three hours. Ross shared stories about his life and musical journey that would resonate with Duncan. This interview would not only change the course of the film, but define it.
“I knew it right there. And I was just like this is the dude,” explained Duncan. “I have some clips from this interview that honestly helped me guide the vision of the film more than I even realized. The stuff that he was saying, it aligned perfectly with what we wanted to do with it.”
Duncan believes that Ross is the main character of the film. It was in Ross’ stories where Duncan found the film’s meaning. In fact, all of Ross’ spoken words in the video are taken from the initial interview with Duncan. Ross’ experiences playing music reminded Duncan of ski racing. In the film, Ross tells a true story about a former girlfriend needing sheet music to play. Like notes in sheet music, Duncan had once felt tied to the gates on the race course. Without the opportunity for creativity, he fell out of love with the sport, before finding freedom in the mountains.
“That was my experience when I was a ski racer, I forgot how to ski,” said Duncan. “I needed gates almost.”
The similarities between Ross’ stories and Duncan’s life created the complexity of The Blackcountry Journal’s story. Appearing almost abstract at first glance, the film tells multiple stories in one.
“[Duncan] and I are saying the exact same thing,” said Ross. “It’s an old man coming of age with a young man.”
In more ways than one, Ross’ life reflects Duncan’s experience finding his place in the sport of skiing. Ross began playing music in high school. Over his career, he has played with many famous artists and music groups. This included the rock band War, whose song “Slippin’ Into Darkness” is used in the film. And, like Duncan with skiing, Ross found his love for music in self-expression. For Ross, percussion was about chasing a feeling and not specific notes.
He had no idea how much his own story would impact the film. The movie had no original script, but Ross brought the film’s jazz music and skiing together, and, more importantly, to life. Although Ross reads one of the poems in the film, the poetry was all written by Duncan. These words are as subtle as they are loud. The first poem in the film was written in 2021. And it’s what pushed Duncan to create something that challenges the industry to think about their sport away from its established narrative.
“You got to watch it twice,” said Ross. “There’s so much more in it.”