Entertainment

The Filmmaker Literally Taking Us to the Top of the World

Director Jennifer Peedom makes films about mountains and the people foolish enough to climb them. We caught up with her ahead of the release of her new documentary "Mountain."
December 18, 2017, 5:00am

This article originally appeared on Broadly.

After watching Mountain, the orchestral-scored documentary from Australian film director Jennifer Peedom, I plunged into one of the periodic semi-obsessive phases my boyfriend affectionately and bemusedly bears witness to every three months or so. I became obsessed with mountains! They were my everything.

On the bus to work, I’d read Wikipedia articles about legendary mountaineering accidents until I knew every detail of what went wrong (never attempt to summit when the light is fading, guys). I watched every mountaineering film and documentary I could find—many good, but most of them bad.

I learned many things, like how the Khumbu Icefall is the most dangerous part of Everest. I read academic papers about the lung capacity and superior general endurance of Nepalese Sherpas. I read forums debating the general merits of the Alpine style of climbing mountains, as opposed to the more traditional expedition style (Alpine wins, every time). I’d use Touching the Void to get me through a particularly tough hangover at work, imagining how it must feel to be left for dead on a mountain with a broken leg and no food for four days by your best friend.

Reader, I know almost everything there is to know about mountains, except what it must feel like to climb a mountain, because I’m not insane, am physically inferior, and I don’t want to die. Thankfully, the experience of watching Mountain comes pretty close.

Filmed by legendary mountaineering cinematographer Renan Ozturk, Mountain is an essay-style documentary with minimal dialogue and a rich, sweeping soundtrack from the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Featuring excerpts from Robert Macfarlane’s Mountains of the Mind, narrated by Willem Dafoe, Mountain is structured around a single question: Why do people climb mountains? Pinder answers it with breathtakingly beautiful footage that helps us understand the human impulse to climb.

Honnold climbing El Sendero Luminoso. Photo courtesy of Dogwoof

Mountain’s visuals are genuinely astonishing, from an opening scene of free soloist Alex Honnold climbing Mexico’s El Sendero Luminoso without a rope which made my palms break into a sweat, to an exhilarating sequence featuring mountain biker Dany MacAskill.

Mountain marks Peedom's return to the clouds following her 2015 Bafta-nominated documentary Sherpa, which was filmed in the aftermath of a 2014 ice avalanche that killed 16 Nepalese guides. Earlier this year, I caught up with Peedom to discuss Mountain, the irresistible allure of mountains, and what it’s like to document life at the top of the world.

BROADLY: I watched Mountain on a laptop and it felt like an enormous waste, not to see it on a big screen. What’s it been like watching cinema audiences react to the film?
Jennifer Peedom: That’s been one of the joys of making this film. The premiere at the Sydney Opera House was just a mind-blowing experience, because the audience was being so loud and reacting so viscerally to the images. I was worried the orchestra would be annoyed or distracted because they were making so much noise, but they really loved it.

It’s such a visceral film to watch—there were moments I was screaming at the screen, like, “don’t do that!”
That’s what you want in cinema, you want to evoke a reaction. If we make your hands sweat, we’ve succeeded in a way. I’ve been a mountaineer myself, and I’ve felt that siren song of the mountain at times. So a part of me understands the mentality of these mountaineers, what they’re thinking. It’s about trying to figure out what your limits are—your spiritual capability in some sense—because you really have to push past something deep inside you to climb mountains like Everest, where the suffering is so great and it’s so physically demanding. Most people think this is totally crazy, and I also understand that too. So the film’s an opportunity to explore those two views, and the space between them. It’s an armchair view into some of the most spectacular landscapes in the world.

How did you get such incredible footage?
I think it’s a true testament to all the cinematographers we used, and specifically Renan Ozturk, who I collaborated with on Sherpa. He shoots mountains so beautifully, in a way that some of the best Hollywood cinematographers probably couldn’t shoot them. And because he only shoots in the mountains, and he loves them so much, he has this real fresh, innovative approach. The opening scene of Alex Honnald climbing that rock face, Ozturk is literally hanging over him on a rope. You can see it in the rushes, he’s swinging out, leaping over Alex, and Alex, without a rope, is just ducking while he jumps over his head. They’re actually very good friends as well. I don’t know how they can do that. I was always concerned about Renan filming Alex—it terrified me.

There’s one scene in Mountain of climbers waiting in line to summit Everest which is really shocking, because until then all we’ve seen is vast, open space, and suddenly you’re in a queue. Do you feel like the spirit of mountaineering is being damaged by the consumer culture that now surrounds Everest? If you’ve got enough money, basically anyone can climb Everest nowadays.
Yes, absolutely. I think the line in the film is, "This isn’t climbing any more, it’s queuing. This isn’t exploration, it’s crowd control." Everest is a crowd control exercise these days. We’ve come a long way from the days of the early exploration of Everest, when it was more a pioneering, romantic pursuit. Mallory was only 100 years ago, and now we have queues on Everest. It’s become a symbol of achievement in our society in a very consumeristic way. You purchase Everest, you pay money and you expect to be taken to the top.

There’s this almost Biblical sense in the film that you go up into the mountains, like Jesus going into the desert, and when you come back—even though time has passed in the same way—you’re not the same. Everything’s different.
Absolutely, that’s my experience of being in the mountains. You’d do Himalayan season twice a year, and you’d have so much trouble adjusting to normal life afterwards. Just trying to comprehend this experience that is beyond expression and price, which is very difficult to articulate, and has changed you somewhere deep inside.

Photo courtesy of Dogwoof

There’s a section in the film looking at the world of corporate-sponsored extreme sport, which is totally hair-raising but in a different way—they’re pulling these crazy stunts. Were you worried you were encouraging them to do something dangerous and potentially get injured for the sake of the cameras?
We didn’t actually shoot a lot of that material, and I think we make comment in the film about how brands like Red Bull are driving a lot of these young guys to take really extreme risks. Everyone wants to get more YouTube views and do something more extreme than the last person, and a lot of these guys have died, including two people featured in the film. So that’s part of the negative, darker aspect of the mountain world we wanted to explore.

Do you plan to do more work in mountains?
I’ve been developing a feature film drama about Tenzing Norgay [the first man to summit Everest, alongside Edmund Hillary] for a while, which I’m really excited about. That’s going to complete the mountain trilogy, from Sherpa through Mountain to the story about Norgay.