"The Salt Lake opening-night gala is a dream spot to premiere this film," said Walker in a telephone interview from her home in Los Angeles a week before the festival. "There is a lot of Park City in the movie, so it is a real celebration of skiing, the local culture and this incredible world."
While the film asks some serious questions about the risks involved in the sport, it is also a tribute to the athletes who are essentially pioneers in a brave new world, she said.
"I feel these sports are evolving so rapidly that these young athletes are pushing and creating the sport before our very eyes. They are so brilliant and daring. They are incredible daredevils and athletes and yet the stakes are so high," she said.
In the run-up to the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Pearce was considered a major contender for a medal. He and 2006 Olympic gold medalist Shaun White were engaged in a highly competitive shootout, each trying to master new, tougher, more complicated aerial moves. It was while trying to perfect one of those, a cab double cork, that Pearce slammed his forehead into the halfpipe at Park City Mountain Resort, incurring a near-fatal traumatic brain injury.
Walker says her film is "the real story of Kevin's crash, the before and the after. It is a very full look at what Kevin's been through."
Walker remembers meeting Pearce at a conference a few months after his accident. "I thought he was a real movie star. He had real charisma and was just a fantastic person to tell the story. I thought, no one portrays better how high the stakes are for these young athletes. I was really moved by him."
At that point, Walker says, "Kevin was in very rough shape. His eyes were looking in different directions and he was napping all the time and he was clearly in the middle of his recovery."
the time Walker returned to Park City last January with another Sundance entry, she had spent nearly three years documenting the aftermath of Pearce's crash and was planning to submit the film for this year's festival. Happily, she said, with phenomenal support from his family, Pearce had made enormous strides and had even been able to ride his board again, though not in a halfpipe.
But that is when the film took an unexpected turn. While sitting in the Eccles Center theater, Walker learned that a young aerials skier had died from injuries sustained in the same halfpipe where Pearce had crashed.
"I was actually at the opening night of the film 'Queen of Versailles' last year when I got this terrible news about Sarah Burke having passed away nine days after her accident, and I remember sitting in the High West Distillery talking to all the bartenders and staff. Everyone was friends with her and they were all just devastated. I knew immediately it was a big part of the story."
"That is the amazing thing on these journeys, you don't know where it is going to go," said Walker, whose award-winning documentaries have covered a range of topics from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan to the environmental and cultural impacts of landfills in Brazil.
In "The Crash Reel," Walker touches on the ethical questions raised by the sports world's increasing appetite for extreme sports, but she insists it is more of a celebration of their efforts than a call for caution.
In the film, Pearce considers a return to competitive snowboarding, to his parents' chagrin. And without giving too much away, Walker says she shared their worries.
"There is a tension about what Kevin is going to do. I was worried at times it wouldn't be a happy ending. You care so deeply about your subjects and want everything to go well for them. You can't help but care for everyone's welfare, especially when they have been through as much as Kevin and his family has, and I didn't know what was going to happen," she said.
Pearce, his parents and three brothers, fellow snowboarders Jack and Luke Mitrani and Danny Davis as well as Dr. Alan Weintraub, Director of the Brain Injury Program at Craig Hospital in Colorado where Pearce underwent extensive rehabilitation are expected to join the filmmaker at the premieres in Salt Lake and Park City.
"The Crash Reel" screens: