(Australia, 74 min.)
Dir Jennifer Peedom
Jennifer Peedom’s 2015 documentary Sherpa takes audiences high up Mount Everest for a white-knuckler of a confrontation between climbers and their guides. The film is an Occupy-era parable featuring the reactions of Sherpas after sixteen of their comrades die in an avalanche after risking their lives for meagre pay while enabling/being exploited by the growing consumer sport of mountaineering. It’s a riveting film full of dramatic peaks and daring acts.
Peedom climbs different terrain in Mountain, a new companion piece to Sherpa that reflects upon the magnitude and grandeur of the rocky peaks. While Sherpa chronicles a specific episode and mountain with an impeccable eye for the social dynamics embroiled within mountaineering, this new doc considers the sport of climbing and the geographic/geological character of mountains from loftier heights.
Peedom delivers with Mountain a film something akin to a classic Warren Miller skiing film for the arthouse crowd. Roller-coaster cinematography and adrenaline-pumping editing lets one experience what it’s like to ski down extreme slopes, bike on rocky terrain, and climb the highest mountains. All the action comes paired with philosophical narration and invigorating overtures as the score by the Australian Symphony Orchestra turns mountaineering into high art. The serene visuals find worthy elevation in the classical strings of the soundtrack and the film heightens one’s senses to the beauty of the world as Mountain ponders the aura of the peaks that span the screen.
Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project) follows-up his voiceover gig from Do Donkeys Act? by narrating Mountain in poetic thoughts. The doc invites audiences to ponder the grandeur, scope, and beauty of the mountains, as well as their power, consequences, and dangers. What pulls adventurers to the mountains? What inspires death-defying acts at high altitudes? Do humans conquer mountains or do the challenging peaks and valleys betray our limits?
Questions of science and nature arise too, as do musings on human irrationality, extremism, and exploitation. Each theme receives its own digression that Dafoe narrates using lines plied with mythology and magnification. Mountains are markers of the Earth’s age and experiences, and Peedom’s film astutely puts human behaviour under the microscope for the unnatural acts that attract people to the rocky cliffs. Mountain looks at the commercialization of mountaineering as Dafoe notes how the travellers walking the clogged arteries of Everest aren’t really “climbing,” but merely ascending. Shots taken from high above liken the extreme climbers to cattle herded through Temple Grandin-like corrals with Sherpas guiding them as a cowboy might lead some bovines. Mountain doesn’t seek answers, and its questions are more rhetorical than substantial, but Peedom invites audiences to contemplate the small place of a human within the grandiose spectacle of nature.
And what a spectacle of nature Mountain is! What Peedom loses in the depth and urgency of Sherpa, she multiplies by the dozen in the awesome visual power of Mountain. Some images evoke the Maysles’ 1974 doc Christo’s Valley Curtain with striking observations of man and nature. The aerial shots by Renan Ozturk compose a cinematic ballet in the sky as the doc views mountains from the high heavens. Sweeping camerawork captures the mountains in their rugged beauty while wisps of clouds and fog lend a foreboding atmosphere to the narrative ponderings about humankind’s foolhardy mania for seeing the mountains as claims to be conquered. Like Marah Strauch’s Sunshine Superman, Peedom’s Mountain exhilaratingly sees the world from aerial views of people who yearn to touch the sky.
There is something utterly thrilling about a film that lets one visit high corners of the world that one will likely never go to physically. Mountain lets one walk the precipices of the Earth’s highest peaks and straddle the fine line between life and death thanks to some adrenaline-pumping shots captured by brave souls affixed with Go-Pros. Other moments, like a serene tightrope walk across between mountains, show audiences the extremes at which one may conquer the world through the image of a brave soul traversing the sky in a high-wire daring-do. This cinematic essay on the power and aura of the mountains is a breathtaking ride.
Mountain opens at Hot Docs Cinema on Friday, Jan. 12