Taylor Rees Has Learned the Art of Suffering for a Story
This one-woman film crew has hopped the globe (and endured blood-sucking critters) to bring unheard voices to the fore
In the fall of 2014, Taylor Rees was part of a team of adventurers that spent two weeks slogging through the remote jungles of Myanmar, picking off relentless leeches and eventually abandoning more than half of their supplies to save weight—all before starting their climb up Hkakabo Razi to confirm that it was the highest peak in southeast Asia. Rees endured all this and captured footage for Down to Nothing, a documentary on the expedition. The 29-year-old co-directed the film with professional climber and filmmaker Renan Ozturk, who’s also her fiancé.
“We were so unbelievably exhausted at times—after 18-mile hikes you just want to sleep,” Rees says. “But if you don't suck it up, put out the solar panels, charge batteries and dump cards, all while running around trying to capture the porter camps and the various debacles, then that’s it. No film.”
The expedition itself was painful until the very end. The team didn’t make the top of the approximately 19,000-foot peak, then trudged for two more weeks, worn down to the bone, back through the jungle to civilization. The resulting film earned the 2015 cinematography award at this year’s Telluride MountainFilm Fest. And it was a valuable learning experience in Rees’s quickly accelerating career: “This was just the next level of pain tolerance in the name of capturing moments,” she says.
“If you don't suck it up, put out the solar panels, charge batteries and dump cards, all while running around trying to capture the porter camps and the various debacles, then that’s it. No film.”
Taylor Freesolo Rees (her actual middle name—a legacy of climber parents) is best described with a multi-hyphenate title: filmmaker-photographer-environmentalist-anthropologist-climber. Born in Idaho and raised mostly in New Jersey and Massachusetts, Rees developed an early interest in environmentalism that started down a path globe hopping. While doing field ecology research in Greenland during her undergrad years at Penn State University, Rees wondered why so few of the visiting scientists to the area spoke to the native Inuit residents, who were well aware of how climate change was affecting their home. “I could no longer investigate changes in the environment while neglecting the human element,” she says. From her experiences in Greenland, Rees created a film that launched a whole new passion. Shortly after graduating with a degree in biology, she left the sciences altogether, opting to teach school and create short films about sovereignty and land stewardship on a Pueblo/Navajo reservation in New Mexico. Her newfound fascination with the human-nature relationship would become a unifying thread seen in much of her future work.
Rees went on to receive a master’s degree in forestry from Yale, lived in Yosemite’s famous Camp 4 for a year and became obsessed with climbing, and did some nomadic activism with environmental organizations like TreeFight. But in recent years, she’s tirelessly pursued all manner of adventures in the role that best suits her: storyteller.
She currently spends a third of her time on an anthropology project based in Alaska, studying how communities experience natural resource conflicts. “I also weave photojournalism and film, so it's a chance to do everything I love at once,” she says. Another third goes toward producing and creative directing projects with Ozturk. The rest of her time is devoted to what Rees calls her true passion: “A top secret documentary project with a team of filmmakers who I have long admired and respected for their willingness to take risks and get weird with adventure and environmental storytelling. Stay tuned!” (Also stay tuned for an expanded version of Down to Nothing that Rees and Ozturk are working on. “There's a lot of story that couldn't make the 30-minute cut,” she says.)
So yes, you’re going to be seeing a lot more from Taylor Freesolo Rees very soon, but you won’t see much of her. Rees is most interested in staying behind the camera (case in point: her Instagram feed, which is pretty much the only way to keep up with her whereabouts.). The recognition she’s getting is just the side effect of lots of hard work and an outlook that keeps her always looking for the next story. “Be curious. Be curious. And be curious,” is her mantra. “The worst thing ever is assuming you know what is what.”