A photographer and professional climber of some of the most challenging peaks in the world, Jimmy Chin decided to share one of his passion projects with the world with Meru. The documentary began picking up awards traction at last January’s Sundance Film Festival and to date counts a Film Independent Spirit nomination as well as a spot on the Oscar shortlist for non-fiction feature films.
Meru follows the struggle of three elite climbers to scale the Himalayan mountain of the same name, and catalogues a story of personal and professional heartbreak, which sometimes are realized, and sometimes are torn asunder. Along with co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Chin began the process in 2008, but only became serious about finishing a feature in 2011, after the group successfully scaled Meru in their second attempt. In 2008, the climbers fell only 100 meters short of the summit, which stalled the feature the first time around. “It was always painful for me to watch,” Chin told Deadline’s Dominic Patten Monday night at the Awardsline screening.
“It was extremely difficult to relive it. I’ve been climbing professionally for almost 20 years and you learn that failure is very much a part of being a climber, and probably 50% of the expeditions that we do are not successful,” said the co-director.
Climbers of Chin’s stature and experience generally only take on what he describes as “low percentage expeditions”—ascents which rarely have been undertaken before. For Chin, the draw of the film is also what made it a challenge. It’s a story of ambition that many people simply would not understand, for the sheer risk involved and a pay-off that might, to the non-climber, seem questionable. Chin wanted to convey “the amount of passion people have for climbing, and that it’s not some daredevil sport—its something that is deeply moving and that you find a lot of self-fulfillment in. It’s part of our DNA.” He adds, “The film wasn’t to justify climbing, but I did want to share a different view on it.” Indeed, Chin knew going into this project that he would be “fighting a genre,” and a way of thinking about an activity that could come off as irresponsible to one’s family and to society at large.
A huge amount of training goes into preparing for these expeditions, but according to Chin, much of the learning happens on the mountain itself. “A lot of this type of climbing has to do with efficiencies—how you pack your pack, how you coil ropes. All those things kind of add up. But in terms of pure suffering, there’s not a ton of great training for it other than doing a lot of it,” he says. Chin is used to the “Alpine diet,” often going days without eating and losing 20 pounds on a single expedition.
Climbing Meru was daunting; shooting the film was something else entirely. In Chin’s words, the budget of the film was “pretty laughable,” which might shock the viewer, given the film’s gorgeous imagery and sweeping, wide shots of the crew scaling the mountain. Meru was shot with a Canon 5D, a handicam and two lenses. The aerial shots were accomplished not through the use of helicopters, but through compositing in the edit, and through the long lens photography of the group’s base camp manager, who watched on from below. Although the lightweight handheld cameras made the filming possible, their batteries, which had to be carried along, unfortunately served as dead weight. Chin says, “Every ounce counts so there’s always that debates. We cut our tags off our jackets to save weight. Every battery is potentially the weight of half your lunch for a day.”
The masterfully executed result of 16 years of shooting on expeditions, producing Meru became much more than a simple explanation of the climber’s life, or a document of a place and time. For Chin, the film was a means to catharsis. “Films are one of those things where, if there’s something that’s gnawing at you, you want to deal with them because you have to watch them like 200 times, and fortunately, I feel like it’s at the point where I can watch it and not feel too much pain,” Chin says.