Mountain (2017)

From the director of the BAFTA-nominated Sherpa and narrated by Willem Dafoe, Mountain explores our fascination with mountains by combining gorgeous footage, contemplative narration, and a bespoke soundtrack.  It seeks to express the mysterious draw that many people feel yet can’t explain.

A film like this could easily have been hackneyed and saccharine.  Yes, it’s full of stunning images accompanied by popular classics, but it’s much more than just a montage of pretty pictures with an easy-listening soundtrack.

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The reason it succeeds is a testament to the skill and passion of its creators.

Having forged a successful career as a mountain camera operator, Jennifer Peedom knows mountains.  She understands their fascination and that’s clear from how she shaped the film and chose her collaborators.

Peedom’s previous film was the fascinating documentary Sherpa, which focused the people who do the hardest work supporting commercial Everest climbing expeditions.  I was lucky to have attended that film’s screening at the 2015 London Film Festival, and judging from the Q&A at tonight’s screening I wasn’t the only one to come back for more.

Mountain has its origins before Sherpa was released, in the form of a collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra.  Their artistic director Richard Tognetti contacted Peedom to work together on a piece for the stage.  Peedom, also an Australian, created a the initial version of film to be screened at concerts; the orchestra would perform a live soundtrack.

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The footage is beautiful, and at times exhilarating and terrifying.  The film makes extensive use of drone footage, but the high altitude footage was taken using helicopters as drones don’t function in thin atmosphere.  In the Q&A that followed this UK premiere, Peedom said that over 800 hours of footage was condensed to 90 minutes.  She discovered that the footage that resonated with her the most was filmed by people who had a passion for mountains; this came across in their framing, points of focus and camera movements.  Most of the footage was drawn from two sources.  Firstly from cinematographer Renan Ozturk, some of it new for this film and some from his archive.  The second source was Sherpa Cameras, a collective that filmed much of the extreme sports footage.

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The concerts were a success, and the team set about preparing a version for cinemas.  However, they realised that it would need to add a narrative.  This is where Robert MacFarlane comes in.  Peedom was wowed by MacFarlane’s book ‘Mountains of the Mind‘.  I read that book a few years ago and it’s wonderful; it’s not just a tale of daring explorations, or of the history of mountaineering, or of geology and geography.  Instead, it contemplates why mankind has become fascinated by mountains, how our culture has embraced them, their beauty, their danger, the taste of the sublime.  MacFarlane’s language is wonderfully expressive.

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Jen Peedom and Robert MacFarlane at the UK premiere, BFI IMAX, 9th October 2017

The film is structured around various aspects of mountains and how we relate to them: their majesty and beauty, their history, experiencing the sublime, recreation, a sense of challenge, crowds on Everest, nature, thrill seekers who half love themselves and half love oblivion.  It shows how we have tried to tame mountains for our leisure, and it shows the severe pain and danger they can inflict.  MacFarlane said he wanted it to start from a western conquistador colonialist point of view and gradually lead to an eastern perspective.

The film evokes the thrilling balance between fear and exhilaration, hostility and beauty.

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Just as a vast number of hours of footage had to be whittled down, so it was with the text.  Rather than have the luxury of 300 pages, MacFarlane was limited to only a few words to express each idea and let the words linger over the next few minutes of footage.  He said that the film made him feel exposed, in the narrative as well as in the vertiginous views.   It’s an experiment in patience, and to get the audience into the pace it takes ten minutes of screentime before the main titles.  His text necessarily is evocative, poetic and precise; it lifts the film to be much more than just pretty pictures.

MacFarlane’s words are narrated by Willem Dafoe.  MacFarlane said Dafoe was the perfect choice for them, because of the qualities of his craggy, granite voice and also because you could imagine him in the mountains. Dafoe, as an actor, is a risk-taker.  Dafoe had read some of MacFarlane’s books and was convinced to get involved.

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The accompanying music is a mixture of popular classical repertoire – Beethoven, Vivaldi and Arvo Part feature prominently – and new composition written by conductor Richard Tognetti.  Tognetti and Peedom sometimes disagreed on the choice of music, or more specifically on the emotions the music expressed.  For example, the initial aerial sequences were scored with music invoking horror and fear because this is how Tognetti reacted to the footage; by contrast Peedom thought the images were exhilarating and exciting.  As it was a collaboration, the music was adjusted to capture a bit of both.

The London Film Festival screening of this experiential film was on the vast IMAX screen, although it wasn’t explicitly filmed for this.  It looked amazing.  It was interesting to learn that until the IMAX screening, MacFarlane had only seen the film on his laptop, and the premiere was only the second time he met Peedom face-to-face.

Mountain will be released in the UK on 15th December 2017, the same day as the new Star Wars.  I suspect Mountain will be the more spectacular.

Mountain poster

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