There are a few things you should know about Mountain Hardwear athlete Anna Laitinen: She’s Finnish. She practically lives at the gym. She can cook like nobody’s business. She’s kind of accident-prone… But above all, she’s an absolute crusher on some of the world’s hardest rock-climbing routes.
It’s hard not to adore such a bubbly over-stoker like Anna, but it’s this last reason that struck the loudest chord for Never Not Collective, a women’s production company that seeks to tell stories of everyday people doing brave and challenging things. And when co-directors Julie Ellison, Colette McInerney, and Leslie Hittmeier sought out to make a film that showcases climbing’s leading ladies, Anna was a clear choice.
In the months leading up to the release, Pretty Strong quickly stoked a fire within the climbing community, sparking conversations of gender and inclusivity. It’s easy to get fired up about topics as important as these, but at what point does it burn too hot?
So far, the film has been viewed by dozens of audiences throughout the U.S. and abroad, but if you’re a first-time viewer, get Anna and Julie’s take on what the film represents to them and hear what exactly sits under the surface. The first step is to listen; then, we can talk…
MHW: At what point did Anna get looped into Pretty Strong?
JE: Pretty much from the beginning. Colette’s experience shooting with Anna was kind of the main impetus for actually trying to get a film together. Over the last several years, she’d been shooting with tons of strong women from around the world, so she’d built up this incredible archive of footage, and it was like, She’s a badass chick… Why am I not doing something with this? That’s when it really started to be cut.
MHW: Anna, what was your response to hearing that you were going to be featured in this way?
AL: I was really, really excited! There aren’t any big films like this with me climbing, so it was it was exciting to be asked to be one of the five segments. I’m really proud to be part of it.
MHW: In the film, you’re climbing in Siurana, Spain; Rifle, Colorado; and the Red River Gorge in Kentucky. These are really special places to you personally—can you tell us why?
AL: Those areas seems to be my typical winter, summer, or autumn places where I return to every year, so they’re close to my heart because of all the precious memories I’ve made there. Spain is naturally my favorite because of the endless amount of hard sport climbing. Siurana and Oliana are like my second homes, so it was important to me that those places were in the film.
The Red has kind of become a new tradition of mine. It’s a sport climber’s paradise! But even if I didn’t have any projects left there, (which I always do, and there’s massive potential for new routes as well!) I’d go back there to hang with my little Red River Gorge family.
But Rifle feels the most like my place, and I love it for so much more than just the climbing. My experience there is a mix of camping, long days at the crag switching sectors, getting shut down by the cryptic routes, and just having fun and enjoying the summery vibes. I remember one weekend when we were so stoked that we basically forgot everything crucial—draws, water, food, sleeping gear… We drove so fast to get there, we even got a speeding ticket! I have some amazing memories from there, so that place is really special for me.
MHW: What was your highlight moment from filming?
AL: I fell from the chains of “Lucifer,” and I’ve never screamed or swore that loud in my whole life! Collette filmed that part, and it was so intense, her hands were shaking! It’s memorable because I had some epics with the route, and it really tested me. Like, the day after Thanksgiving, I injured my finger really bad, and it started snowing, so I had to take a week off. And when I finally got the high point, I fell at the chains, and it started snowing again, so I had to wait to give it another go. Then, last year, I went back and on my first day, I one-hung it five times before it started snowing and I got sick… So, even though it’s probably not the hardest route I’ve ever done, it was definitely one of the most challenging because of all these unexpected things adding up.
MHW: It sounds like there was a real mental fight behind it that route. Does that show up anywhere else in the film?
AL: You can see some of the mental fight when I’m climbing, but I think most of it is invisible. Sometimes it starts right in the morning with the pressure, excitement, thinking about the route or moves constantly in my head. Like, before I did “Pati Noso” in Spain—which is one of the climbs in the film—I had to take three days off because of a massive bleeding hole on my fingertip I got from the last crux. If I didn’t do the route on my first go, the split would have opened again, and that would have meant another three days off from climbing… I was supposed to head to Oliana, so there was some pressure outside of the actual climb that you can’t really get from the film. I actually think you get to see more of the opposite feeling because when I start climbing, I can be free from all that and it’s really liberating.
MHW: Another major undertone and something that’s been a big part of the conversation surrounding the film is gender. How important was it to highlight that aspect in climbing?
JE: I am lucky because I don’t think I’ve experienced a lot of the marginalization or misogyny that a lot of other women have experienced, but I’ve still had times here where I remember hearing things like, Pretty strong for a girl, which is where the title came from. At first it was sort of this joke, but I think all women at some point have had this qualification where people are surprised when you do well.
I definitely think that’s changing, but in my early years of climbing, you’d get that a lot. And the thing about it was I didn’t even know… It was so subconscious, I didn’t even realize what was happening in my own psyche when I would hear something like that. It wasn’t until I started climbing with just women that I realized how deep gender was at the crag and in my mentality. The whole demeanor would change when I would get to climb with just a group of women.
AL: Yeah, but I kind of get excited when people think I’m just the girlfriend who’s just going to top-rope after my boyfriend has put the draws up—when actually, I’m the one who hangs the draws and gives the beta!
JE: Especially filming or getting on a fixed line, and you roll up and have all this gear—like, it looks like you’re going aid climbing with a camera on your back. I definitely felt eyes on me. You’re getting the looks, you’re getting the, Oh, what are they doing? Who are they filming? And you’re already taking up space by shooting on a hard route. There’s kind of this added tension. And I definitely felt this increased pressure to be really dialed in my systems and to be able to jug up and get down fast, never get in the way of the climber, and just be that much better because I’m a woman. Because at this point in climbing media, there are just way more men doing it than women.
MHW: Anna, seeing the impact this film has already had, what does it mean to you to be in it?
AL: I’m proud to be a part of a big film that’s leading the way for more stories like this. I wish there would be more climbing movies like this one—not just because there are some lady crushers but because of its positivity.
It’s also really cool to see that people back home here in small Finland are really excited about me being in this film. I’m really thankful for Never Not Collective filming me and giving me the opportunity in the first place, it’s truly an honor.
MHW: What’re your takeaways on the reactions so far?
JE: Since the movie premiered in January, the overwhelming reaction so far has been pure psych. People from all walks of life—ages, genders, nationalities, levels of climbing experience—are walking out of the theater stoked to climb and try hard. I’ve even had some non-climbers tell me that watching these women overcome fear and go after such big goals inspired them to do things in their daily lives that they were previously too scared to do. Hearing that is so rewarding. And to see all the young girls watching the movie, to think this might be the first big climbing film they see and how it might alter the course of their lives, it’s really incredible.
Before the film was released, we did receive some healthy criticism in how we as the filmmakers were speaking about the film, how we were celebrating the fact that we tried to remove gender as much as possible from the storyline. What we didn’t recognize until it was brought to our attention by other women in the community is that not all people have the luxury to remove gender; they must deal with it every day. It forced us to evaluate some of our own blind spots in our approach to storytelling.
AL: Personally, I was a little frustrated with some of those criticisms, but also not completely surprised. Gender politics are so fair here in northern countries that I sometimes forget that it is not the same way in the rest of the world. But being the first climbing movie about female climbers, there’s a certain expectation that the film addresses all the important topics, and that’s a huge thing for a little film to bear. One argument was that the movie wasn’t feminist enough, and I understand the feedback, but it does make me feel like it erases the work that’s been done… I’m happy that this film opened a discussion, and I hope it opens more doors for climbing movies to become more diverse.
MHW: What would you say to anyone about to see the film for the first time?
AL: Enjoy it! Think about these bigger ideas like gender, but it’s meant to be fun.
JE: I would echo what Anna said: enjoy the film and get psyched. That’s point number one—the idea that we can be inspired by a variety of stories about people coming from different places and trying their hardest. Like Anna said, “Lucifer” wasn’t her most challenging route grade-wise, but it was challenging for her for various reasons, and I think this film really explores that with all the athletes. There’s a quote in the film from Mexican climber Fernanda Rodriguez that sums it up perfectly: “It might not be hard for the grade, but it’s hard for my mind.”
I’d also add that we don’t think Pretty Strong is the “end all, be all” of women’s climbing films. We hope it’s just the beginning of a larger wave of stories being told that otherwise might have been overlooked five or 10 years ago. It’s not perfect, but please, let it open the floodgates for every voice and perspective! We don’t want people to be afraid to step up and tell their story just because it hasn’t been done before. Five people can have the same interaction, and they’ll walk away with such different experiences and different takeaways from it. I feel that sharing those perspectives means coming to this point of understanding and then moving forward together.
MHW: Other than the film screenings, are there other ways for people to watch Pretty Strong?
JE: We will be touring the film at climbing gyms, outdoor shops, pubs, and independent theaters through the end of summer 2020. Check our website for updates; we’re adding new shows every day. Sometime after that (probably early fall 2020), the film will be available for streaming on REI’s website for five days for free. A few months later, we’ll offer it for paid download and potentially have it on another streaming service.
Follow Anna on Instagram: @annaliinalaitinen or stay connected via @mountainhardwear. You can also connect with Julie at @joolyhart and keep up with the Pretty Strong tour and more of Never Not’s work at @nevernotcollective.