[DCEFF] 'Breaking Trail' (2021) Film Review

Sydney Bollinger reviews Breaking Trail (2021), part of DCEFF30. The film follows the journey of Emily Ford, the first woman and first person of color to complete Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail in the winter.

[DCEFF] 'Breaking Trail' (2021) Film Review
Emily Ford and Diggins, her sled dog

by Sydney Bollinger

Emily Ford and sled dog Diggens set out on a difficult trek. It’s the middle of winter, and the pair are hiking the Ice Age Trail during a Wisconsin winter. Temperatures get well below zero, but Ford and Diggins don’t give up on their 1200 mile journey.

Ford, a thru-hiker, was the first woman and first person of color to complete the Ice Age Trail during the winter. Throughout her hike, she gained thousands of followers, including film director Jesse Roesler. Roesler asked Ford for permission to document her time on the trail and Ford consented. The end result is Breaking Trail (2021).

The film, which has been awarded the Eric Moe Award for Best Short on Sustainability at DCEFF, carries an important message about who has access to the outdoors through breathtaking cinematography and narration from Ford. Despite the film’s 30 minute run time, the production makes it feel epic; incorporating footage from Ford herself, as well as interviews from her family, partner, and Shelton Johnson, a Black Yosemite park ranger, Roesler weaves together a story about the importance of the outdoors for all people in the midst of chaos.

The inclusion of her family and Johnson fill out the story of her thru-hike and its cultural impact. The interview with Johnson was particularly effective in framing the film’s and Ford’s larger message — the outdoors is for everyone. Watching the film confronts audiences with an oft-overlooked issue in environmental spaces, even though it’s been long known that America’s National Parks System, myriad public lands, and hiking trails are more frequented by white people than any other racial or ethnic  group. Breaking Trail’s approach to this issue is highlighting Ford’s hike as a huge stride for people of color in outdoor spaces.

Ford and Diggins walk along the side of the road while its snowing. The landscape is covered in snow.

Watching the film, though, doesn’t feel like some kind of PSA or shoehorned-in activism. Roesler expertly intertwines the cultural significance of Ford’s hike with the more serious content, while keeping the film lighthearted. Part of the charm of Breaking Trail is Ford’s personality; she doesn’t take herself too seriously and is genuine and kind-hearted in all her interactions.

Ford’s personability and joy is so contagious that an already marvel of a film would benefit greatly from spending more time with her on screen. This, however, has nothing to do with the length of the film and more so to do with the filming process. Roesler did not begin filming Ford’s hike on the Ice Age Trail until she was about halfway through.

It would be hard to find a reason not to recommend this film. Not only does its short runtime make it accessible for anyone — no matter how much time they have to watch something — it offers a poignant look into thru-hiking, racial justice in outdoor spaces, and humanity’s love to have someone to rally behind.

Ford sums up the film best, saying “I firmly believe the outdoors is for everybody and everybody has a space out there, regardless of what you look like, where you come from, and how you live your day to day.” So, watch to be inspired by Ford’s resolve and tenacity, to fall in love with sled dog Diggins, and to see the impact one woman can have on outdoor recreation.