Two documentaries about fallen mountain climbers were accepted into Telluride 2020. Only one held on for this year’s festival.
When last year’s Telluride festival was cancelled in July, the filmmakers behind “The Alpinist” and “Torn had to make a tough decision: should they find another festival to debut their respective films?
“Getting into Telluride was so exciting for us,” says Peter Mortimer, who had re-edited “The Alpinist” with Nick Rosen following the 2018 death of its protagonist, 23-year-old free solo climber Marc-André Leclerc, in an avalanche. “It’s like the holy grail, and Werner Herzog had watched the film and wanted to introduce us on stage after the screening, so when it got canceled, it was bad.”
Red Bull Media House and Sender Films, who produced “The Alpinist,” decided to steer clear of any virtual film festivals and hold the film until the “pandemic improved.” In July Roadside Attractions and Universal Pictures Content Group acquired “The Alpinist” and will release the doc in theaters on Sept. 10.
Max Lowe considered debuting “Torn” at another major festival last fall and winter, but in the end decided to hold the film about his father, the legendary climber Alex Lowe, who died via avalanche on the Himalayan peak of Mount Shishapangma in October 1999, for the Colorado festival. Telluride invited “Torn” back to the 2021 fest and the doc, which will stream on National Geographic in 2022, will be making its world premiere tonight.
“It was definitely a difficult choice,” says Lowe of the delay. “But seeing as this was my first feature as a director, and considering the intimate nature of the story, we thought that waiting to try and screen the film for audiences in person, to truly convey the messaging behind the story would be the most impactful way to present it to the world.”
Lowe was initially hesitant about making the film. He confronts his father’s death head-on. Alex’s best friend and climbing partner, Conrad Anker, went on to marry Alex’s widow and help raise Lowe and his two brothers. When the body of Lowe’s father was found 16 years after his death, Lowe decided to document his family and their journey toward understanding Alex as a man, not a myth.
“Summoning the courage and coming to grips with whether or not delving into this difficult journey was worth it for my family was the biggest hurdle,” he says. “This self-doubt continued throughout the making of the film as well as trying to balance my own perspective on Alex as my father, and the image that my mom, stepdad and brothers held of him, not to mention the image that so many have portrayed of him to me my entire life. Coming to grips with the idea that I could hold my own opinions and perspectives and question this man who had been an untouchable hero to me my entire life was a huge personal challenge.”
By contrast, Mortimer and Rosen had wrapped filming “The Alpinist” when Leclerc died on a climb. With the support of Leclerc’s family and friends, the directing duo spent the next year and a half re-editing the film about the Canadian soloist who shied away from publicity and was reluctant to let the film crew in on his climbs. In many ways, “The Alpinist” is similar to “Free Solo,” the Oscar winning documentary directed by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin that premiered after Leclerc’s death.
While Leclerc’s death is part of “The Alpinist,” it isn’t the focus of the doc.
“We didn’t want to open with his death because that wasn’t the life he was living in those two years we were filming him,” explains Rosen. “That experience we were having with him in those two years, it was a more pure experience about a climber who is very much alive and on a journey.”