Frit Sarita Tam is a filmmaker like no other. Talented, driven, lesbian, British-Chinese and a lover of the outdoors, Frit takes on the male-dominated world of outdoor storytelling.
What sparked your passion for spending time in nature?
There are so many reasons to go on an adventure outside. I find it to be very healing – especially when there’s a lot going on. Spending time outside gives me headspace and perspective on things. I’m very narrow-focused when I’m working on projects and I get very overwhelmed. Getting outside gives me the opportunity to get back to myself. Whatever the issue is that I’m stuck on, spending even just 10 or 20 minutes outdoors will usually provide me with an answer.
Have you always been attracted to the outdoors?
No, never really. Up to my early twenties, I knew about the outdoors but wasn’t actively participating in it. I’m from a Chinese background and it wasn’t a thing at all to go camping or to go hiking. I played a lot of sports outside, but that’s a very controlled environment. You’re not listening to the things around you, you’re not experiencing nature. You’re again, in this narrow-focused world.
In 2016, I signed up to do a 50 km hike with my friend Bow. I did a tiny bit of training for it, but I thought: how hard can it be? I’m walking all the time. We first started really energetically, excited about spending the whole day hiking. We talked a lot, took pictures at every single viewpoint until suddenly we realised: if we don’t hurry up, we’ll never finish. When we finished at midnight, my body was tired but my mind was really awake. I couldn’t believe it. After 15 hours of walking, my brain just felt so good. For the first time in my life, I understood why people hike.
Did it also change your perspective on your daily surroundings?
I always thought the biggest thing I could ever see, was the sea. But when you discover the mountains and the hills, it puts everything on a scale. Everything up there is beautiful and everything down here is beautiful. It just blows your mind.
Once I started to discover the outdoors, I went to the Lake District to really immerse myself in it. It’s unbelievable! I couldn’t believe I had been missing out on this for twenty-something years. The scenery there changes even the most mundane objects. The high street was the prettiest I had ever seen, the petrol station was the prettiest I had ever been at.
In the past few years, I haven’t felt the need to travel outside the UK. I might have hiked in an area, it would still be a different experience from when I cycle it. I can go to the same places and enjoy them in a whole new way.
You’re a British-Chinese woman who loves the outdoors, but ever since the Corona crisis there has been a spike in anti-Asian xenophobia. How have you experienced this racial anxiety?
I remember a small incident right before the lockdown. I was at the bathroom in the train station and when a women saw me coming out of the cubicle, she hesitated to go in. It was such a small thing, but for some reason it felt very different.
In general, you do feel a palpable shift, where people are just much more on edge than they used to be. Anxiety and mental health issues have increased, but there’s also been a spike in abusive attacks on racial groups. The people in power play a huge role in this. If the president speaks in a way that segregates and separates a group of people, it empowers other people to do so as well.
I’m fortunate to have my partner, who often joins me on my adventures. When we go out together, I’m really invested in her and in our conversations together. So I might not pick up on some of the reactions from others. I do feel the need do justify myself more. I have hayfever, so I sneeze a lot when I am outside. These days, I always tell people: don’t worry, it’s just hayfever. I want to address the point before it becomes an issue. But isn’t that a bit ridiculous? Why should I explain myself?
Covid-19 has made us all more aware of inequalities in our society. Yet one thing that’s rarely discussed is the unequal access to nature.
True, and a lot of that has to do with marketing and outdoor brands. They have a responsibility to show that everyone’s welcome in the outdoors. They don’t do this. There’s still a very stereotypical view of what an adventurer is. When only a very tiny fraction of people is being shown as the image of the outdoors, you either identify with that image or you don’t. If you can’t recognise yourself, it’s easy to think: I don’t look like that, so the outdoors is not for me.
A lot of misconceptions divide us even further. People often say that the outdoors is free. It’s not. You need transport if you live in an inner city. You need at least some comfortable hiking shoes and a rain jacket.
You do need to spend some kind of money to get outside. The only people who think that it’s free, already have access to all the things that will help them get outside.
There’s so much to unpack here. You’re also vocal about your experiences as a gay person in the outdoors. How do queer people experience the outdoors differently?
When I’ve been out hiking with my girlfriend, people have whispered and given us odd looks. We’re subject to the usual snide remarks, the questions, the derogatory names. Sometimes, I cannot hold her hand without actively thinking about the fact that we’re holding hands. it actually takes effort not to let go when walking past others.
It’s ridiculous that I feel uncomfortable holding hands with the person I love. That small sting of discomfort punctuates the time that we’re having. I’m used to it by now, but the fact that we have to experience this over and over again raises a big question on inclusion in the outdoors.
As a gay woman, we have it a bit easier than gay men. There is still this image of a strong, bearded alpha male, a buff adventurer. Any man who isn’t similar to that is categorised as different. There are overt homophobic attacks on gay men, also in the outdoors, and a lot of queer people feel unsafe in the outdoors.
A number of groups give queer people a safe space in the outdoors. I’m grateful someone had the energy and confidence to set up a queer hiking group. But ultimately, I would love for these initiatives not to have to exist.
Born out of these experiences is your new project: Passionfruit Pictures, a film studio that wants to add colour to the adventure industry. How do you hope to achieve that?
I used to think I wanted to change the face of adventure. But I don’t want to eradicate the people who’ve come before us. Some people are doing incredibly well at the moment and keep inspiring us. I don’t want to take anything away from that – I want to add to the huge spectrum of faces and stories that we’re missing out on. I want to make films with colour – not just skin colour, but also abilities, sexualities and all the other ways that give us our uniqueness. Everyone has an incredible story. The more that we hear them, the more than we can understand one another.
What would be your ultimate story to tell?
That is such a hard question! There’s one story that I’ve been thinking about for a little while which is of Junko Tabei. She was the first ever woman to summit Everest, and she’s Asian. What’s even more staggering, is that on her ascent, a huge avalanche hit their camp and she couldn’t stand up for 2 days afterwards. She survived, and she made it to the top. Where’s her story? How come we’ve only heard about Edmund Hillary – the first man to summit Everest – and not the first woman?
I’d also love to make a series of short films about everyday adventures and people that include adventure into their everyday life. You don’t have to beat the next world record or do the next biggest thing. Unless you have years of free time, loads of money and a support team, chances are you’re probably not going to do one of those huge adventures. But you can still have a thousand smaller ones that are on your doorstep. There is a real need to show that more.
Maybe it all boils down to words. We need to reclaim the word of adventurer. So many of us are one, but we wouldn’t call ourselves that.
Maybe it all boils down to words.
We need to reclaim the word of adventurer. So many of us are one, but we wouldn’t call ourselves that.
The outdoors seems to come with its own language. Is it time to take a hard look at that, too, in the name of inclusivity?
For sure! Another word we should reclaim is ‘stoke’. It’s currently being overused by these big, alpha male shirtless guys. ‘Look at me being an idiot with my top off. Make a film about me and call it stoke.’
Something that’s ‘full of stoke’ is not about a sweaty, shirtless guy climbing a rock. Let’s bring back some meaning into the word. What was he doing it for? Did he raise money? Was he having a remote talk with a school so kids can dream bigger about what can be achieved in a day?
That sounds like stepping away from the focus on technical achievement. A welcome thought!
Experiences are all about inner challenges. Those are the stories we resonate the most with. Storytelling is a bit like the outdoors itself. Climbing is not about reaching that final hold. It’s about learning how to turn your hip and overcoming your fear. The point never was reaching the top. It’s everything in between.
Frit in a nutshell:
Favorite national park:
Lake District, UK
Climbing, hiking, SUP
Looking forward to:
Living in my van again