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An avalanche thunders straight towards the camera in the opening frames of Cole Yeoman’s documentary The Milford Road.
It triggers a flight response in the viewer but the camera remains, soon engulfed in a mix of grey blur and white noise.
It’s the sort of threat the characters in Yeoman’s short film deal with on a regular basis, and they are just as steadfast — if a little more risk-averse.
The Milford Road takes us inside the team tasked with keeping one of the country’s most important tourist routes open — the Milford Road Alliance, comprised of road crews, avalanche technicians, helicopter pilots and others — who operate in the face of all sorts of natural hazards. As one of those interviewed by Yeoman says, "Fiordland is a place that doesn’t take prisoners".
Indeed, the genesis of the alliance’s approach is traced back to the death of Robert "Pop" Andrew, a road crew member who was killed in an avalanche in 1983. After that, there was a renewed effort to build a team and employ technologies to ensure safety was uppermost.
For all that brooding menace, the film is beautiful to look at, Fiordland’s muted palette of green and brown as magical as ever, dark escarpments decorated with tassled waterfalls.
Yeoman, who made his doco at the New Zealand Broadcasting School, Ara Institute of Canterbury, was motivated by his fond memories of family holidays along the fabled stretch of tarseal.
"I have just always loved the Milford Road," he says.
"It’s a beautiful spot, point the camera in any direction it is going to look nice."
It’s a story of Kiwi ingenuity in a part of the world where spare parts may not be readily available and there is often no cellphone reception. It is one of the top-five highest risk avalanche environments in the world, the steep valleys generating avalanches that plunge 500m-1000m to road level.
"It’s very Kiwi, very Southland," Yeoman says of the work. "And they are known throughout the world for that ... They will go to roading conferences and tunnel conferences around the world, which I didn’t know was a thing but apparently it is a thing. And the Milford Road is famous there. They say ‘we work on the Milford Road’ and people are ‘no way’. It gets people excited because it is known for its uniqueness."
Among those involved in "active control" is avalanche technician Brad Carpenter, who works with helicopter pilots to trigger avalanches in threatening snowpacks.
"At face value that sounds very dangerous," Carpenter says in the film, before a plastic-wrapped parcel of explosives is thrown with minimal ceremony from the open door of a chopper.
"It is cool, but we have an absolutely codified system here, there is no grey area with how we deal with explosives," Carpenter says. "It is one of those things we take incredibly seriously."
"Yeah, nah, it is pretty cool work," another team member comments. "We get some good ones going, very impressive."
It’s Kiwi understatement. Next minute there’s a low boom and it looks like a mountain is collapsing.
The Milford Road screens online as part of the Doc Edge Film Festival’s "virtual cinema" at docedge.nz. Available to stream until July 10.
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