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SFIFF58: ‘Meru’ Co-Directors and Subjects Talk Mountaineering

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

Meru may be a meaningless name to those who aren’t a part of the climbing community, but for three American alpinists, veteran Conrad Anker, photographer Jimmy Chin and freestyle extraordinaire Renan Ozturk, making the first successful ascent of the treacherous peak in the Gharwal Himalayas was a goal bordering on obsession. The documentary of their journey weaves together footage from the team’s two attempts, in 2008 and 2011, with interviews with the climbers as well as their loved ones.

Co-directed by Chin and documentary filmmaker E. Chai Vasarhelyi, Meru is a compelling narrative of friendship, teamwork and the triumph of man’s will in the most unforgiving of circumstances. Having won over Sundance earlier this year and taking the Audience Award, the two directors (also husband and wife since 2013) spent a few days promoting the film at the San Francisco International Film Festival, along with Anker and wife Jennifer Lowe-Anker.

Congregating on the back patio of a Mission coffee shop on a sunny weekday morning, the affable foursome spoke candidly about family, finding one’s calling in life, and what reception to the film has been like.

“Meru was a culmination of life experience,” says Anker when asked how he prepared for the groundbreaking expeditions.

The leader of The North Face climbing team tends toward modesty when speaking of his accomplishments. The year that he defeated Meru, in 2011 when he was 49 years old, Anker also skied Denali and climbed Everest without supplemental oxygen. (It should be noted that he has summited Everest multiple times throughout his career). Meru was special, though, since reaching the top had been an unrealized dream of his late mentor, Terrance “Mugs” Stump.

Stump is not the only close friend that Anker has lost to the sport of mountaineering. In 1999 an avalanche took away his climbing partner Alex Lowe, an event that both Anker and his wife speak openly about in the film. (Lowe’s widow and Anker eventually married; he adopted their children and raised them like his own). Indeed, in the interviews with Lowe-Anker, Ozturk’s girlfriend and Chin’s sister, a strong tension emerges; namely, how can you be supportive when you know that your loved one’s livelihood may kill them?

But although all three of the team members climb professionally, it is obvious that the sport is much more than a job or a hobby.

Jimmy Chin. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Jimmy Chin. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

“It’s kind of like your calling,” says Chin, who first got seriously involved while in college.

“And it wasn’t just the climbing – it was the lifestyle and the people that drew me in.”

“The teamwork you have with your friends is exceptional,” agrees Anker.

“I’m basically playing fort and I haven’t grown up yet.”

The two share an easy rapport that is evident in the film and even more so when meeting them in person. The camaraderie between Chin, Anker and Ozturk is tangible, particularly in the aftermath of a terrible skiing accident that the latter suffers mere months before they are supposed to revisit Meru. In short, Chin had asked Ozturk to help film some professional snowboarders, when he took a tumble that fractured his skull and spine. The audience follows him as he’s taken away on a stretcher, and then flown to a hospital.

“He actually asked me to film him,” recalls Chin.

“At first I didn’t think it was a great idea but in a way it was a distraction for me…I honestly never thought that footage would see the light of day.”

Those scenes are quite visceral, especially because, at that time, no one could predict how the recovery would go. With five months until departing for India, neither Chin nor Anker has the heart to tell their friend that he might not be able to accompany them. And yet, Ozturk makes a comeback that not even his doctors thought possible. Not to mention that, back then, all filming related to the expedition was for posterity.

“We lived the experience,” says Anker.

“We never went into it with the film being the end goal, which makes it feel more authentic.”

With that said, the cinematography is simply breathtaking – particularly when the sheer technical difficulty of scaling Meru is taken into account. This is where Chin, whose photos and videos have been featured on the cover of National Geographic and in other films, shines. He shares cinematography credit on the film with Ozturk.

“A lot of your bandwidth is occupied by the climbing and really simply taking care of yourself,” says Chin.

“It’s like every extra task up there feels like an exponential additive. We just tried to shoot whenever we could find a moment to film, and one of the main goals of filming up there was also not to hold up the climb. So we were pretty selective.”

The expedition footage was achieved through one DSLR, two lenses, and a point-and-shoot handicam, after which Vasarhelyi came on board and helped flesh out the narrative.

E. Chai Vasarhelyi. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
E. Chai Vasarhelyi. Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

“I felt it was very clear that they had a wonderful film here – they had built-in challenges, characters that were incredible,” she says.

“But I was most interested in developing the story of friendship that seemed to be at the core.”

Meru marked a departure from her previous body of work, in that rather than having sole creative control she had to accommodate the existing footage, a process the co-director describes as both “liberating” and “a challenge.”

Another welcome post-expedition addition is the presence of writer and mountaineer Jon Krakauer, who serves as commentator. Not only is he a historical expert on climbing and a friend of Anker and Chin, but also, in Vasarhelyi’s words, “wonderfully dramatic.”

“When we left a second time, I don’t think [Krakauer] thought we had a chance,” laughs Chin.

“So when we got back he was really, truly impressed. And it’s hard to impress Jon Krakauer!”

Although the subjects may feel far removed from the expedition, which now took place nearly four years ago, they are enjoying the film’s run on the festival circuit.

“To be able to share the story with an audience – this is what mountaineering is about,” says Anker, who started a vocational training program in Nepal with his wife in 2003 and also works on behalf of environmental causes and student leadership.

When asked if they could imagine doing anything other than climbing, both men fall silent.

“It’s a life sport,” says Anker, finally.

“With climbing either you’re dead or you’re still going along,” adds his wife.

But what about their families? In the film, Chin talks about how his strict immigrant parents struggled to come to terms with his choice of career and lifestyle. When they finally came around, his mother had one request: don’t die before I do.

Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Film Society.

“I’ll always climb and ski, but [having a family] certainly changes the risk calculus,” says Chin.

And, knowing the risks involved, one can’t help but wonder how they feel about their children’s involvement in the sport.

“They get out, they enjoy it,” Anker says of his three sons.

“They’re not possessed by it or crazy like I am.”

“But they have a different perspective because they lost someone really dear to them,” says the boys’ mother.

Over in the Chin-Vasarhelyi household, the situation is a little different.

“[Our 20 month old daughter] is not allowed to see Meru until she can legally drink,” claims Vasarhelyi.

Meru is out in theaters this August.

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