Q&A: Pro Snowboarder Jess Kimura on Her Future Behind the Lens
The self taught filmmaker talks supporting the next generation of women riders, her journey with mental health, and new film, The Uninvited II
Courtesy Jess Kimura
When I was a younger woman in snowboarding, I naturally found myself among the boys. Growing up in New Hampshire, I had the luxury of riding after school and on weekends, establishing myself as part of the neighborhood— but never quite at home. It wasn’t until I spoke with professional snowboarder turned director Jess Kimura—at the ripe age of nearly 30 no less—that I realized my experience wasn’t so isolated, rather a reminder of womanhood between two individuals with completely different trajectories.
In 2009 I made the decision to “retire” from competition after a second-place finish at the local “Man of Steel” rail jam. lol. In 2010, British Columbia-based Jess Kimura, who turned pro at 23, opened Think Thank production’s famous Right Brain Left Brain video—something very rare for a woman to do—and gained sponsors like Capita, Nike, The North Face, Monster Energy, and more.
As I eventually moved to New York to pursue jobs in media, Jess’ career continued to skyrocket. Kimura made lists like ESPN’s Top 50 Most Influential People in Action Sports, won countless Transworld Women's Rider of the Year, Women's Video Part of the Year, and Reader's Choice awards, and even an X-Games silver medal. All the while riding both rails and backcountry like she had nothing to lose and everything to gain—establishing herself as one of the most influential snowboarders of the last decade, male or female.
Fast forward to 2020 and Kimura continues to ride, but is now focused on a new chapter, moving from in front of the camera to behind it to produce The Uninvited video series. As director, filmer, and even mentor, Kimura is building a grassroots snowboard crew where female riders not only join a global community, but star in every second of her films. On the eve of the release of her second full length snowboard video, The Uninvited II, released this past week, I connected with Kimura over a video chat.
What follows is an excerpt from our conversation, in which we discuss the 32 women featured in her new film (!!!), mental health struggles, and what she wishes she could say to her younger self right now—reminding us all that while a career in action sports sounds sick on paper, there’s always more behind the scenes.
What motivated you to make your first snowboard film, The Uninvited? Was there a singular defining moment you realized, “I need to do this?”
Even though I was having a successful career, I was still getting cut out and left behind. I’d see the editor cut all my clips and I’d be like, “man, if that’s happening to me, what’s it like for these young riders?" These girls have no future in [snowboarding] unless they have some weird stroke of luck. I made [my first] video to give them something to film for. For The Uninvited II, I saw the talent developing and didn't want all that footage to go to waste.
"I want to encourage them and make them feel like what they’re doing matters... sometimes it just takes the smallest thing to make you believe."
The Uninvited (2018) helped launch the careers of a few female riders. How does it feel to play a part in that? Do you have anyone who blew you away when filming?
I have my eyes on the up and comers, because I want to encourage them and make them feel like what they’re doing matters. I almost quit so many times when I was coming up because I felt like nobody gave a shit about what I was doing. Sometimes it just takes the smallest thing to make you believe, “maybe I should keep going, maybe I have a future in this.”
In snowboard videos, the people who has the first part and the last part usually have the best parts. The girl that has the last part [in The Uninvited II], Ylfa Runarsdottir, is insane. She’s better than me. Better than a shit ton of other pro riders, but nobody ever gave a shit.
She told me after seeing five shots [in the new video], she didn’t want to take this opportunity for granted. She was firing on all cylinders all season and put out a part that I think people are going to be really blown away by.
You filmed with 32 women from around the world for The Uninvited II. What’s something that opened your eyes through working with so many different types of people?
That we’re all the same. Even though the food we eat is different, or our cultures are different—underneath all of that we’re all the same. We want to have fun, we want to feel like what we’re doing has a purpose. We want to have a feeling of community and we want to pursue our passions.
I’ve gone to Japan with girls on two-week trips, with girls who couldn’t speak a word of English and we communicated through hand signals and google translate. But it didn’t matter. Once we got to spots, everyone pulled out their shovels and snowboards and we all knew what to do.
Do you have advice for anyone who often second guesses themselves?
Ha, that’s all I do. I tell them what I used to feel like and what I still feel like. When the camera comes out, sometimes I get a sinking feeling of, “Oh, no, I can’t do this.”
It took me years and years to realize all the tricks I’ve landed wasn’t because of luck. How can something happen like 500 times throughout my career and I still think, “whew, super glad that happend to work out.” I never believed it was my talent doing it. Now, I see that same thing in the girls. I share that anecdotal evidence. If you look at me in my video parts, you’ll realize I’m just the same as you. Even editing this movie, I relied on Youtube tutorials and learned as I went along.
"It took me years and years to realize all the tricks I’ve landed wasn’t because of luck. I earned it.”"
We love a self starter. What motivated you to edit without experience to become the Snowboarding Fairy Godmother?
I didn’t know what I was doing, but knew anyone I paid to do it wasn’t going to care as much as I was. I know what it took for those girls to get those shots. Some of them got broken off, some of them got injuries they will be dealing with later in life, and some of them paid their own money to travel in order to shoot one clip. I remember this happening to me when the editors didn’t give a shit, cut stuff without context, forgot about stuff, and I wanted to make sure I didn’t do that.
Speaking of teaching yourself, sometimes I think we have to unlearn things, too, especially as women. How do you navigate that?
For women, there [can be] a weird feeling in your stomach that says, maybe I’m not supposed to be here, maybe I’m not supposed to do this. If you’re not getting a lot of encouragement throughout your lives or your career, it’s no wonder we question ourselves. As far as having those moments, a thousand times today I had to repeat my affirmations [laughter].
A good example, when we’re out filming, we have this thing where I make the girls stand at the top of the drop in and do the Ted Talk Power Pose. I also don’t allow us to say [bad] shit about ourselves when we’re filming. Sometimes not letting yourself talk yourself down works. Just try it for five minutes. You can talk shit about yourself after, haha.
"We want to have fun, we want to feel like what we’re doing has a purpose. We want to have a feeling of community and we want to pursue our passions."
Have you ever thought about what you would say to your younger self if you could?
So many things! Ask for more money [laughter]. But seriously, I’d probably say have more faith in yourself. All that stuff that you’re landing, you’ve earned it. It wasn’t a stroke of random luck. Forget the imposter syndrome. You’re powerful beyond what you could imagine.
I still have a hard time believing it myself, but look, we’re here talking for Field Mag now and The North Face is on board with The Uninvited II. [I only wonder] what more I could have achieved if I didn’t tell myself I sucked the whole time. I try to use everything I learned to give the girls a higher place to start so that they don’t have to waste their energy, get hurt, and do all that stuff that I did in order to find this out.
You’ve shared some struggles you’ve had with mental health in the past. What has more recently helped you open up more publicly?
It’s been rough for me. I’ve had crazy shit happen. I’ll share that when I was 18, I had a major mental health crisis that took a good couple years off of snowboarding before I was able to come back to it. That experience was so brutal because they misdiagnosed me with tranquilizers, antipsychotics, all sorts of crazy shit. I was so scared of being medicated that I got myself off what I could and kept steady on what I thought was working.
When my boyfriend Mark passed away, there were some really dark moments that made me realize, “I feel like I’m going to die if I don’t do something about this.” So, when the pandemic happened, it pushed me to see a psychiatrist. I was always too scared to see one because I thought they’d just turn me into a zombie again. But, she was like, “hey, did you know you don’t actually have to be fucked up for the rest of your life?” I had just accepted that things were going to be shitty forever because that’s what depression is. It’s a disease.
Now, as a person in a position of influence, or whatever it is, you have to do the right thing, and the right thing is to not present a façade that is just going to damage people because they’re thinking, “why aren’t I like that?” The more and more I go through life the more I realize we’re all fucked up in the exact same way. No matter where we’re from, no matter who we are, at the root of it, we all [deal with] the same shit. Thinking back to the beginning of my career, I thought the action on my snowboard is all people would care about. I never saw myself talking about this stuff.
Do you have any advice for someone who wants to seek help? It can be a lonely journey.
[I’ve been] too scared to talk to someone, too scared to move. Try to do something about it. Even making a call to a counselor can be an indication to your insides that someone cares about you. How can you fight that self-worthlessness and take one tiny step. Whatever it is. For me, medication in combination with therapy, cognical therapy, and a SAD light has worked, but find out more information for you. You don’t have to be scared. While medication can be scary and was something that fucked me up in the past, now, for the first time going into winter, I don’t feel complete darkness.
You’re armed now, that’s incredible. As someone who suffers from mental illness as well, I've found creative projects can sometimes motivate. Was working on your films therapeutic for you?
The same way I need to be honest about my mental health stuff—this shit was hard. It took a toll on me. Yes, it was therapeutic when it was done, but it broke me while we were doing it. I felt like I had [the riders] careers on my shoulders, and I didn’t want to fuck that up. I thought I was going to have a heart attack. In the end, everyone sees what I’m trying to do. I never [make films] to get appreciation or hear the “yay you!” but what I do get out of it is the sense of what I'm doing is meaningful.
"2020 forced me to stop and face everything I’ve been running from."
When I was riding for Nike, winning those rider of the year awards every year, I felt empty. I felt like, “what am I doing this for?” It’s the same thing. Every year people care a little less. All the shit you do to kill yourself [for video parts] surprises them a little less, excites them a little less. They’ve seen it before.
That’s why this project is important to the way I’m trying to live my life now. It’s been hard behind the scenes, but it’s also brought me a lot of fulfillment. I did something positive while I’m here in snowboarding, and here on this earth.
2020 has been a hell of a year. What is something you’re grateful for looking back and focused on looking forward?
This sounds cliché and cheesy, but it made me stop running. I’ve been running for years. I was running from the mental health episode I had when I was a teenager, using snowboarding to fill that void, using drugs to fill that void. Then Mark died and I've been running ever since. 2020 forced me to stop and face everything I’ve been running from.
It was brutal. There were two months this summer I was incapable of functioning. It was one of the darkest places I’ve ever been, but it forced me to be here. To be able to face some of the stuff I’ve been running from forever. It’s easy to run when you’re a pro snowboarder because you can just take off for another trip.
It’s like the monster under the bed you’re scared of, but once you shine the light under there, there’s actually nothing to be afraid of—still valid, but not as scary. I’m excited to see what a snowboard season and winter will be like in 2021 while I’m not running. I’m lucky to live in a place that has snow and backcountry in British Columbia. I’m excited to take all the advice I’ve been giving the girls. To be nicer to myself.
Thank you, Jess. I know you’ve made me feel better about being a human. I needed a reminder to sit with shit instead of running, too.
[Laughter] vulnerable is the way. You can break down walls.