There have been a few times in my life when I have felt truly privileged to view the world in a particular way, once while deep sea diving and another time while paragliding. Wow, I thought, not many people get to see the world this way.
Mountain, by director Jennifer Peedom (Sherpa, Miracle on Everest), took me to that same place of wonder.
“The mountains we climb are made not only of rock and ice, but also of dreams and desire,” narrator Willem Dafoe crooned as my heart raced up a cliff-face, was dazzled by sunlight on crystal snowflakes, and shocked by the roar of avalanches. I was swept up in the majesty of mountains.
While Peedom’s 2015 BAFTA Award-nominated documentary Sherpa delves into the risks sherpa’s take for wealthy thrill-seekers on Everest, Mountain is more of a tribute to both mountains themselves, and the brave souls who feel the call to conquer them. This is a tone poem of grand proportions.
The documentary is a collaborative masterpiece. We are captivated by the extraordinary words written by Robert MacFarlane, the beautiful score by the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) and the incredible footage compiled and shot by Peedom and cinematographer Renan Ozturk whose partnership began with Sherpa.
In a Q&A session at the New Zealand International Film Festival, Peedom explained that it all started with the music. The ACO came to Peedom with the idea to do something with mountains. Richard Tognetti, the principal violinist and artistic director, was fascinated by mountaineers and by Ozturk’s mountain footage.
The project was originally designed as a concert work, with the ACO touring with it across Australia. But it was important to Peedom that the film stood as a stand-alone narrative piece.
During Peedom’s early years as a climbing camera operator, she had been captivated by the book Mountains of the Mind by Robert MacFarlane. It explored the revolution of our feelings towards mountains, where only 300 years ago climbing a mountain was thought lunacy. Peedom invited MacFarlane to collaborate on the film and the themes of his book became the overarching thesis of the documentary along with Peedom’s own experience. As someone who had felt the allure and siren song of the mountain, she wanted to express her experience as well.
About 30% of the film was shot with colleague Ozturk, supplemented by his own incredible library of footage, as well as that of other mountain cinematographers, resulting in over 2,000 hours of footage, across 15 countries. The technology utilized in this environment was cutting edge, with the cinematographers pushing the limits of what drones were able to do.
In the Q&A, Peedom explained that mountaineering is a “very blokey world.” She said that she kinda becomes one of the boys in that environment as she is usually one of the only women on expedition. But while it might be blokey, she says many of the mountaineering men are beautifully romantic souls, including Ozturk himself. In saying that, she did try to put as many women in the film as she could and she herself brought a feminine gaze to it as well.
Mountain is an inspiring, soul-nourishing, and at times clench-butt-cheeks scary, sensory experience. If you’re lucky enough to see it with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, then you can count yourself very lucky. The rest of us will need to find the biggest screen we can in order to be fully absorbed into this magnificent treasure.