Jennifer Peedom spent months in the hostile Himalayan mountains shooting the BAFTA-nominated film Sherpa. She co-directed the inspiring but heart-wrenching documentary Solo, about Australian adventurer Andrew McAuley who attempted to kayak from Tasmania to New Zealand, only to disappear 67 nautical miles from the finish line. An avid mountaineer herself, she directed and produced Miracle on Everest, about an Australian climber Lincoln Hall who was pronounced dead at the summit but somehow came back to life. But the Sydney director’s latest film Mountain presented her with her toughest challenge yet but not in the way you might expect.
The feature length documentary takes viewers around the globe, giving a bird’s eye view of some of the world’s most beautiful and treacherous mountain ranges, delving into man’s obsession with conquering them. More than 2000 hours of footage from 15 countries have been edited into this awe-inspiring film that explores free climbing, mountaineering, paragliding, heli-skiing, even para-biking off a mountain edge in Utah.
This isn’t just a film for adrenaline junkies, but a meditation on what it means to be human, and why some of us are driven to push the limits of what we are capable of. Nor is the film limited to victories. “Oh god, take me home,” whimpers one exhausted and terrified Australian climber. We see sickening falls, tears, pain, blood and nausea. We also see pure, unadulterated elation.
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Viewers of this new Australian film may find it surprising to learn it was actually the idea of Australian Chamber Orchestra artistic director and lead violinist Richard Tognetti. A man drawn to adrenaline-fuelled sports himself – he is an accomplished surfer and skier – Tognetti was intrigued to explore the allure of mountains and what led people to need to conquer them, often at risk of personal injury and death.
It was ACO cellist Julian Thompson who put his artistic director and the film director in touch. That was in 2013. She was heading off to film Sherpa, which won best documentary at the London Film Festival and is the third-highest grossing Australian documentary in history.
In the months she spent at base camp and in Nepali lodges, Peedom dwelled on Tognetti’s idea, searching for the film’s voice.
“It needed to be more than video art. I’m not a video artist, I’m more of a narrative storyteller, [and] I think being female you look at things from a slightly different point of view. Having made a number of films in the adventure space what I found most interesting was how vast the chasm is between the people who love being in mountains and routinely risk their lives; versus everybody else who thinks it’s completely nuts.”
Peedom has assembled what can only be described as a crack creative team. Recognising the film would need some form of narration, she tracked down best-selling British author Robert Macfarlane, whose book Mountains of the Mind she’d read and loved some years earlier. A fan of Sherpa, he agreed to pen the script for a team that already included North Face professional athlete, Emmy-winning cinematographer Renan Ozturk and American actor Willem Dafoe as narrator.
Then there was the music. And it was here Peedom found herself challenged in ways she never had before. Where previously she would choose music to accompany the film, with Mountain she often had to find ways for the film to work with the music.
The score is performed by the ACO and includes various classical pieces: including Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, Beethoven and Arvo Part; and a number of new works specifically composed by Tognetti for orchestra and voice (principal violinist Satu Vanska adds a hauntingly beautiful song).
“Collaborating with a musician was a totally different way of making the film. I decided upfront there was no point fighting it; the collaboration was the point. I said, ‘Okay, what are the rules of engagement?’ There were certain composers I couldn’t touch, I couldn’t have voice over certain pieces or cut certain pieces. There were compromises and Richard was really respectful in understanding it [from my point of view]. He was more than just a composer.” The result is an evocative, compelling score that creates its own character in the film.
Peedom has already begun work on her first feature film about Sherpa Tenzing Norgay with Lion writer Luke Davies, but says the Mountain experience will forever stay with her.
“It’s taken two to three years and it would be fair to say I’ve received a great education,” she says. “What I’m most proud of is finding a way for Richard to express his point of view musically, because I have a different relationship to mountains. We were able to express both and that was important.”
Mountain, performed with a live score by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, will go on a national tour from August 3–20. Shows in Newcastle, Canberra, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Sydney and Brisbane are lined up.