Surfers with sandbags: Spring flooding film makes festival debut

The Ottawa Adventure Film Festival opened Friday, featuring 38 documentaries from filmmakers around the world.

But one of the films wasn't shot on top of a snow-capped mountain or along the trail of one of the toughest hikes in the world  — it was filmed in Ottawa-Gatineau, at the height of this year's spring flooding.

Wetsuits for Hire follows a group of local surfers who donned their wetsuits to deliver sandbags and assist communities in need, instead of taking their boards out on the rising water. 

"[People] are losing their house, and here come six people who can help them save their home, where water's coming in the windows and the pumps can't keep up and they've been up for three days," filmmaker Alex Guimont told CBC Radio's Ottawa Morning Friday. 

Guimont is 20 years old, making the Chelsea, Que., filmmaker the youngest to debut a project at the festival.

But the idea for the short documentary was actually the brainchild of festival founder Mike McKay, who's also Guimont's mentor.

"I knew as filmmakers we could turn the lens on the story that was happening. I wasn't there, so automatically I started texting Alex saying, 'Just get out there,'" McKay said.

An emotional process

Unlike most adventure flicks that run on adrenaline, Guimont said there's a sober undertone to his film because of what residents went through. 

"Surfers were helping people move stuff and people and animals from their houses. Those were obviously more quiet, emotional times," the first-time filmmaker recalled.

The damage ended up being devastating: more than 2,000 dwellings were flooded or at risk of flooding in Ottawa at the end of April, while 3,800 homes suffered damage in Gatineau.

Jean Delisle/CBC

Despite the seriousness of the situation, Guimont wasn't tempted to stop recording.

"Being there with the camera felt fairly right," he said.

"It feels good to be able to tell a story that might not have been exposed otherwise — something positive amidst the negativity."

'A story that needs to be told'

The eight-minute-long film fits right in with the other festival picks, McKay said, because adventurous experiences differ from person to person.

"This year it was really important that, as the festival director, that I'm highlighting not just that all-out action stuff," he said. 

"Going up a mountain and coming down it can be as scary as stepping out of your everyday comfort zone, and that's a story that needs to be told and shared."

The film will be shown on Nov. 16 and 23 at the Mayfair Theatre. The festival runs until Sunday, Nov. 24.