You've Never Seen a Mountaineering Movie Like This

The Australian director of 'Sherpa' takes another look at high-altitude pursuits in the new documentary 'Mountain'

Mountain has become the third-highest-grossing Australian documentary since it hit theaters there last fall. (Renan Ozturk)
mountain

Mountain, a new documentary by Australian director Jen Peedom, is more like a concert than a movie. That makes sense, given its conception as a visual collaboration with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Scenes unfold without plot or context, keeping the focus on high-altitude cinematography, handled by mountaineer-filmmaker Renan Ozturk, and the score, created by ACO artistic director Richard Tognetti. There is no dialogue, just Willem Dafoe’s gravelly voice reciting a threadbare script by Robert Macfarlane, author of the climbing memoir Mountains of the Mind. “Some people don’t really get the film at all,” says Peedom, who also directed the 2015 documentary Sherpa. “They hear the violins and find the words really irritating. And I get that. And for others it’s like a religious experience. Which is surprising to me.” 

Screening this month at the Telluride, Colorado, Mountainfilm festival, Mountain has become the third-highest-grossing Australian documentary since it hit theaters there last fall. The combination of jagged peaks and violins is thrilling. It includes the unmistakable shape of free soloist Alex Honnold high on a wall and footage of crowds on Mount Everest. (“This isn’t climbing anymore. It’s queuing,” Dafoe deadpans.) A montage of volcanoes spewing lava shows how the world’s peaks first rose up from the ocean floor—and how mightily things have changed since then. But this isn’t a story about humans trampling too heavily upon the natural world; Peedom has plenty of respect for all of man’s pursuits in the mountains, and besides, Dafoe tells us, the mountains “were here long before we were even dreamed of. They watched us arrive. They will watch us leave.”

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