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Short film shows mountain biker's healing journey after traumatic brain injury

'The Debora Effect' screens at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival's Summer Fest on Saturday at The Shipyards
Debora DeNapoli stars in 'The Debora Effect' which was filmed on trails in North Vancouver. The film is directed by Darcy Turenne, and produced by Anthill Fims & Well Travelled Collective for Shimano.

Debora DeNapoli wanted to make a mountain bike musical. What she ended up filming was a much more profound journey – one that chronicles her return to cycling after a traumatic brain injury, against the advice of her physicians.

DeNapoli will be presenting her 11-minute feature, The Debora Effect, at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival's Summer Fest on Saturday (June 24) at The Shipyards in North Vancouver. She’ll also be leading a community bike ride affiliated with VIMFF on Mount Fromme at noon.

The free, family-friendly Summer Fest kicks off at The Shipyards at 3 p.m., with live music from the North Shore Celtic Ensemble, dancing with Born to Bhangra and Peter “Not So” White, as well a beer garden, food trucks and a climbing wall. Films will play throughout the day from 3:30 to 8:30 p.m., focusing on themes of breaking barriers, community and connection, and courage and healing.

The Debora Effect opens with DeNapoli driving her car late at night, singing along to her personal anthem, Get Up Get Out by Born Dirty – seemingly without a care. Snapshots of her cruising down North Shore trails on her mountain bike cut through the songs, like visions of days past, or days to come.

Headlights glare. Vehicles smash. Pieces of broken glass fly through the air.

In 2014, DeNapoli was involved in a serious car accident, one that left her with brain bruising, whiplash, soft tissue damage, perpetual vertigo and a host of post-concussion symptoms, compounded by previous head injuries.

Not only did she have to suffer the impacts of her injuries, and a loss of normalcy in many aspects of her day-to-day life, it also took away mountain biking, one of her biggest sources of joy and meaning.

At the time, she was an avid rider who was heavily engaged in the mountain biking community. She had just released a short documentary the year before, Life Cycle Project, about her riding up and down nine summits in the Canadian Rockies to raise awareness about ovarian cancer, which had taken the life of her mother and several other family members. Right before the accident, she was set to be program co-ordinator for the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, but had to cancel.

Doctors told DeNapoli that the worst thing she could do was get on her bike. So she spent six years trying to recover without one. One day that changed.

“I've got electrodes on my brain telling me what pathways are blocked, where my brain is bruised and what I need to do to heal and recover based on Western medicine,” she said. “And then there's this other part of me, this, ‘Oh, I have full agency over my body, I need to trust myself and my intuition.’”

She began a deep practice of mindfulness and meditation.

“I used to go into the forest where I used to bike and I would just walk the trails, and I imagined what it would feel like to be on my bike,” DeNapoli said. After being told many times that healing isn’t linear, that there are ups and downs, she decided to trust her intuition instead.

Benefits of returning to mountain biking were 'almost immediate'

While being aware that another injury could set her back even further, DeNapoli got back on her bike – slowly and carefully.

“As soon as I got on my bike, I knew it was the right thing,” she said. “I knew I was going to be very cautious and I still am very cautious, but the benefits that I got were almost immediate.”

Around that time, her good friend Darcy Turenne – who made DeNapoli’s first documentary – pitched the idea of telling her story through a short film with Shimano. On a Zoom interview with Shimano executives in Japan, DeNapoli sang part of what she imagined could be part of a little opera for the film.

“They were like, ‘That's great. We're not going to include it, but we'd love to tell your story,’” she explained with a chuckle. “That's how it came to be.”

The Debora Effect was released last year. DeNapoli says the film being out in the world has brought her a lot of connection.

“I'm realizing that there are so many other people out there who are experiencing, if not the same injury, they've experienced some sort of injury that's impacted them, and they have navigated their own healing and recovery process,” she said. “I also feel like the the film is told in a way that really brings out a lot of joy and laughter – healing doesn't have to always be a very serious thing.”

DeNapoli said she’s very proud of the film, not only for showing her invisible disability, but also for representing herself as a body-positive, queer woman.

“There's this part in the film right near the very end…. I say, ‘I love who I've become.’ And I see myself as this little shift where I actually really embody that,” she said. “It always actually makes me cry a little bit.”

While DeNapoli now lives on Salt Spring Island, she calls the North Shore – and its many biking trails – her home.

“If anybody's questioning getting into the sport or getting into the trails, honestly just do it. Find a great group of people and go explore,” she said. “The North Shore is absolutely beautiful. And it's a very healing place. It's magical.”

Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival Summer Fest

When: Saturday, June 24, 3 to 8 p.m.

Where: The Shipyards in North Vancouver

For more information, visit the VIMFF website

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