Mountain and Sherpa

I’m pretty choosy about what documentaries I’ll pay to see in a cinema.  I figure the point of sitting still and quiet for a couple of hours in a darkened space in front of a big screen is to get yourself totally immersed in an imagined story without pause or interruption and (hopefully) without distraction from other people.  For all the rest – most documentaries, talk shows, game shows and sitcoms – the TV screen does perfectly well and in fact it’s a boon to be able to record, pause, delay, repeat, play back or fast-forward. 

Of course, some documentaries are MADE for the big screen, like those Imax nature spectaculars.  And there are those that benefit from a big screen because of their setting: Sherpa, for instance, about the Nepalese guides who help affluent foreigners climb Mt Everest often for little reward and at great peril to their own lives. 

My photo of Everest and Lhotse, taken from the best window-seat I ever had

Sherpa was made by Australian director Jennifer Peedom and released in 2015.   It became the biggest-grossing Australian documentary ever, and deservedly so.  Now Peedom has released Mountain, a more abstract creature than the essentially conventional Sherpa, and it would be downright folly not to see it on a big screen.   

It is, as the name suggests, about mountains, and is worth seeing for the sublime cinematography alone.  But it’s also a meditation, scripted by Peedom and narrated by actor Willem Dafoe, on the place of mountains in the human psyche and our shifting attitudes to them. 

It’s abstract in the sense that places are not identified by name and no dates are mentioned, but not so abstract that it ignores the passage of time.  The commentary makes the point that for most of human history mountains were considered hostile, mystical places, and that it’s only in post-industrial times that mankind – mostly white European males at first – evinced a desire for mastery over this dangerous realm of gods and monsters. 

Peedom doesn’t condemn this despite her evident affinity with the traditions of mountain people such as the Nepalese.  She does have some strong words to say about the commercialisation of Everest, the ascent of which, she says, is no longer a personal challenge so much as an exercise in crowd control. 

But she keeps the tut-tutting and the spiritual guff to a minimum and lets the astonishing cinematography carry the point of the movie, which I suppose can be summed up as ‘mountains are awesome, and so are the skills and audacity of the crazy-brave young adventure-seekers who go there’. 

We see them somersaulting their skis down vertical slopes, racing avalanches, plummeting through holes in rocks (BEFORE opening parachutes), gliding through vertiginous peaks in puffy inflated bodysuits, hurtling along narrow paths on mountain bikes, launching themselves off cliff-edges into the snowy abyss, clinging with bloodied fingers to tiny cracks in the perpendicular rockface, suspended in mid-air.  They risk life and limb and don’t always beat the odds. 

Much of this footage is literally breathtaking.  You can’t help gasping and vocalising, or just shaking your head in disbelief at the stupendous bravado. 

The music soundtrack is central to the enterprise.  In fact Mountain is described as a co-production between Peedom’s cinematographic team and the Australian Chamber Orchestra with Richard Tognetti at the helm.  Tognetti’s original music score is wonderfully good, but he also uses classical music at crucial moments and I left the cinema with the sublimely beautiful notes of the adagio from Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto ringing in my ears and thinking I really should crack out my classical CD collection more often. 

It should ideally be in an Imax cinema, but if we had one here in Hobart, could my heart stand it?

This was originally published on Facebook in October 2017