PLANET Pick: Saved by snowboarding

By on February 10, 2015
Brolin Mawajje enjoys a sunny day at Camp of Champions in Whistler, BC. (Photo credit: Galen Knowles)

Brolin Mawajje enjoys a sunny day at Camp of Champions in Whistler, BC. (Photo: Galen Knowles)

Jackson Hole, Wyoming – When Ugandan-born Brolin Mawajje sees snow for the first time in the new film Far From Home –“It wasn’t like rain but it moved like rain” – we know it will twist his entire trajectory. “How can it cover a whole area and create this white coating?”

Today the pre-med senior at Westminster College is chasing a dream centered on the enigmatic white stuff: to be the first snowboarder to represent Uganda in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Oh, and once he finishes med school, Mawajje wants to build a hospital in Uganda.

In Far From Home, Mawajje’s tumultuous, inspiring narrative, one with Jackson Hole roots, poignantly unfolds. The film also traces his journey back to Uganda, where Mawajje seeks his country’s support to represent it in the Olympics. “He wants to promote a sport, which of course, is a strange one,” notes Ugandan government official, General Kutumba.

At the age of 12, Mawajje traded a wearisome life with his father in Uganda (the film documents their reunion there 10 years later) for a turbulent existence in Massachusetts with his mother, who immigrated to the States when Mawajje was a toddler. But Mawajje isn’t welcomed to his new milieu with open arms. Instead, his peers ostracize him. He copes by lashing out and subsequently turning all the wrong heads.

It isn’t until Mawajje is thrown an unlikely life preserver, snowboarding, that he derives a sense of belonging and soon forges a friendship with Far From Home producer Phil Hessler and his family, who ultimately invite him to move to Jackson Hole with them.

In between dynamic shots of backcountry kickers in Bariloche, park jibbing in Utah and life in Uganda, Massachusetts and Jackson Hole, viewers witness the therapeutic power of snowboarding, how it can demolish cultural barriers and teach invaluable axioms.

“Snowboarding is much more than a sport, it’s a vessel,” Hessler explained. “[When] life gets crazy with obligations and responsibilities … snowboarding takes people into the present moment.”

For Mawajje, snowboarding ushered him away from nefarious activities and softened the sadness lingering from his childhood. “How I feel when I snowboard is that I’ve left my pain and my worries behind me,” Mawajje says in the film. “When you have a lot of anger and anxiety built into you, you need that escape to keep you grounded.”

Director Galen Knowles captures the reunion between father and son in Kampala, Uganda. (Photo credit: Galen Knowles)

Director Galen Knowles captures the reunion between father and son in Kampala, Uganda. (Photo: Galen Knowles)

Peppered with snowboard footage of Mawajje, the Hessler boys, Cam FitzPatrick, Chase Josey and Sage Kotsenburg, Far From Home illumes the struggles of an outsider to assimilate, and the will of myriad community members and iconic snowboarders to embrace him. Rob Kingwill – who Mawajje describes as “one of the greatest coaches there is” – notes Mawajje’s shortcomings, that he is not yet Olympic material. But what other snowboarder with Olympic aspirations, Kingwill asks, is also vying for a spot in medical school?

Travis Rice poetically surmises why Mawajje finds solace in snowboarding: “Trying to explain snowboarding, I think you’d have to explain the environment first … in certain places it snows so much, that [the] mountains [are covered] with this very soft, fluffy layer of snow. You have this tool, which is a board … you’re able to surf down the sides of mountains; it allows you to go up and stay for long periods of time in a purely creative state and it’s that state of flow where you are riding and not having to cognitively compute what you’re doing … it’s a beautiful feeling when you’re in that state.”

It may come as a shock to viewers that almost the entire team laboring over this stirring piece of cinematography is still in college. Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t taken long for the young crew to glean kudos from industry bigwigs. The film was selected to screen for Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s “To The Maxxx” feature and is slated to screen at festivals all over the world following its Jackson premiere.

When asked about inspiring moments during the filmmaking process, director Galen Knowles recalled praise he received after screening an early cut for one of the group’s mentors.

“Curt Morgan [of Brain Farm] put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘I know how you feel at this point, and it’s terrifying. But understand that you’ve taken an unbeatable story to action sports and achieved something I’ve been searching for my whole career.’ A wave of new energy came over me and I knew that the effort we put into this and Brolin’s journey would stand the test of time no matter what happened next,” Knowles said.

Far From Home Jackson movie premiere, 6 p.m. (doors), 7:30 p.m. (film), Monday at Center for the Arts. $17. www.jhcenterforthearts.org.

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About Robyn Vincent

Robyn is the editor of Jackson Hole Snowboarder Magazine and former editor of Planet Jackson Hole. When she's not sweating deadlines, she likes to travel the world with her notebook and camera in hand. Follow her on Twitter @TheNomadicHeart

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