You may not know it, but on 11 December every year, the United Nations celebrates International Mountain Day to highlight how climate change, hunger and migration is affecting mountain communities. What the event actually involves, I’m not going to go into here, but you can hop on over to the official website if you want to learn more. What I will say is that, as far as obscure international days go, it beats such eccentric celebrations as Ed Balls Day, Global Wind Day and International Dog Biscuit Appreciation Day.
I decided there could be few more appropriate ways to mark it than visiting the East Dulwich Picturehouse, a little arts cinema in London, to watch Mountain, a documentary film about – well, knock me over with a cucumber – mountains. The film was a collaboration between a few big names, the cinematic equivalent of a rock supergroup. Let’s call them the Travelling Wilburys of mountain film. Directed by Jennifer Peedom, who was responsible for the Sherpa movie about the 2014 Everest tragedy, it featured a script by the nature writer Robert Macfarlane, and footage by mountaineering photographer and climber Renan Ozturk. The whole thing was capped off by the sinister whispering tones of narrator Willem Dafoe, accompanied by dramatic orchestral music from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
The film opened with the following quote by the German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:
Those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music.
This is the precursor to an hour and a half of activity most ordinary people would consider insane, carried out by a Who’s Who of the world’s extreme athletes, including rock climber Alex Honnold, alpinist Ueli Steck, and adventure cyclist Danny MacAskill.
These aren’t the stars of the film though. The stars are the mountains themselves. Let’s be frank, this film is about the photography. It’s basically an hour and a half of sheer, unadulterated mountain porn – eagle-eye views sweeping across stunning, glaciated peaks, accompanied by dramatic orchestral music by the likes of Beethoven and Vivaldi.
Robert Macfarlane’s script is minimal, just 1,400 words of poetic prose, growled out by the gravelly tones of Willem Dafoe. Some of the words are taken from Robert’s book Mountains of the Mind, including some of its more memorable lines.
The mountains we climb are not made only of rock and ice, but also of dreams and desire.
Those who travel to mountaintops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion.
Obviously one of these lines is very profound and the other is total bollocks, but it doesn’t spoil your enjoyment of the film. The script complements the photography without intruding. Robert likened writing the script to walking along a narrow ridge with exposure on both sides. If you were of a poetic mind too, you could say that his words caress the mountaintops as the camera glides across them.
Robert Macfarlane, incidentally, is now a legend on Twitter for his ‘Word of the day’ tweets, such as this one:
Word of the day: “cragfast” – in climbing, to be stuck on a rock-face or mountain-side such that one can neither ascend nor descend without danger.
Metaphorically, to be in a situation where both pressing on & turning back seem similarly problematic. pic.twitter.com/X2zxZhghWf
— Robert Macfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane) 14 January 2018
The film starts with footage of Alex Honnold standing on a narrow ledge, halfway up a huge vertical rock face. He is facing outwards and not attached to the rock by any means other than his feet. No ropes, no harness, no fear. What we don’t see is the helicopter hovering a few metres away as Renan Ozturk points a camera at him. I wonder how many cinema goers have soiled themselves watching this sequence.
There follows a series of aerial sweeps of sheer rock faces, and climbers walking along narrow snow-topped ridges that touch the clouds. As we watch in awe, Willem Dafoe talks about how mountains were originally places to be avoided and passed around. Only later were they venerated, and then explored.
The scene changes. We see archive footage of Victorian mountaineers, women climbing in skirts in the Alps. It switches to Tibet, and John Noel’s photography from the 1920s: yaks and porters, footage from 1924 Everest expedition, with Mallory, Norton and co. assembling outside a tent, then of Mallory and Irvine’s memorial at north side base camp.
While the extreme athletes in the film are not identified and not the stars, it would be fair to say that the film is as much about people as mountains, and the activities we carry out there. There is more modern footage of climbers on extreme routes with huge racks of ironmongery clipped to their harnesses. The film does its best to capture the harshness of the environment: tents on narrow ledges, wind pounding the tents. There are lots of shots of climbers taking long falls while roped up, taking pendulum swings and crashing into rock faces. There is one of a climber showing his bloody hands to the camera, and another comic moment, where a climber is pictured with his face in the snow, groaning “oh god, take me home”. This elicits a chuckle from the audience.
The film moves to a ski resort: hundreds of snowboarders on the same run, people going up the mountain on ski lifts, and crowds of people static on a beginners’ ski run. It moves on to more extreme sports: BASE jumpers, skiers with parachutes bouncing down the terrain, wing suit fliers, mountain bikers on narrow scary ridges, somebody tightrope-walking across the Grand Canyon, and snowboarders jumping from helicopters and triggering massive avalanches.
Here the film goes off on a tangent a bit, by taking a swipe at a few of the activities it considers excessive. Some words in the script imply that somehow the masses in ski resorts don’t appreciate the mountains, or that the extreme sportsmen and their sponsors (said to the backdrop of a great big Red Bull logo on a helicopter) take too many risks and destroy their lives, or that the Everest climbing scene is risking the lives of Sherpas unduly.
I felt this section was a bit out of place with the rest of the film, and slightly gratuitous in a film that is essentially mountain porn. The sequences are so short that they don’t tackle the issues in any depth or provide the necessary context.
I can’t speak for the skiers at big resorts or the extreme athletes and their sponsors, but I can speak on behalf of the Everest climbers. One of the lines in the script says that ‘Everest gives ordinary people a chance to do something extraordinary’. This is certainly how I feel about it too; it shows that there is nothing inherently wrong with the activity itself.
Of course, the modern Everest scene is a mess, beset with problems and it badly needs more sensible regulation. But these are complex issues that need to be tackled in more depth. Jennifer Peedom’s film Sherpa does it much better, and IMHO this film is not the right forum to raise these issues.
By having a dig at people who live adventurous lives, while filming them doing adventurous things in an amazing setting for the delight of the audience, it just ends up making this part of the film look crass. It’s rather like a naked copulating couple having a discussion about sexual harassment while bent over a grand piano in some porn flick. Try to picture that scene for a moment, and you will see how the point they are making is going to get lost among the visuals.
I noticed that both Robert Mcfarlane and Jennifer Peedom are credited with writing the script. I wonder if these little political swipes were Jennifer Peedom’s contribution. Whoever wrote them, it was a mistake and detracted from the rest of the film, which is essentially a celebration of mountains.
But anyway, this is a minor criticism. Towards the end of the film there is a sense of timelessness. The mountains remain while the people who explore them change. There is a nice touch when time-lapse photography of a glacier expanding and contracting with the seasons makes it look like the glacier is breathing like a lung.
The film ends as the camera pans back from a view of throne-shaped Ama Dablam in the Everest region of Nepal. It’s a mountain that is climbed every spring and summer by hundreds of people, and one that is regarded as one of the most beautiful in Nepal. It’s a fitting finale.
But it’s not over yet, at least not in the cinema where I watched it. We were just leaving the theatre when I realised that most of the other people were staying in their seats. They knew something I didn’t.
After the credits, there was a question and answer session with Robert Macfarlane and British climber Matthew Dieumegaard-Thornton. I suspect this particular sequence was only being shown in British cinemas, as it was essentially two posh boys talking about mountains, and would look a bit eccentric elsewhere.
The interviewed dragged on a bit, and lots of people got up and walked out, but it was worth staying to the end. The pair made some good points. Matthew Dieumegaard-Thornton gave a fresh perspective on the Everest sequence, an aerial view of a queue of climbers on a line of fixed rope. He explained that he was one of the figures in that queue, and it didn’t feel like a queue when he was in it – he could only see ten people above him, and perhaps two behind. Only the aerial photography showed the whole picture, as it would had it been footage of a line of moving traffic on a main road.
He also defended the risks taken by extreme athletes. He used the example of Alex Honnold climbing the rock face without a rope. He explained that Alex would probably have climbed that bit of rock a hundred times with a rope to catch him if he fell. He never fell, and he knew the route so intimately, every tiny handhold, that eventually he could climb it confidently without one.
In any case, it doesn’t matter. If you love mountains, this film is a must-see. Find it, watch it, then get out into the mountains and enjoy them in whatever way you find comfortable.