For director Max Lowe, documentary filmmaking has become an acutely personal affair.
His 2021 film “Torn” begins with the death of his own father. Alex Lowe was a famed climber who tragically died in 1999 alongside climber and cameraman David Bridges in an avalanche on the Tibetan mountain Shishapangma. Alex’s best friend Conrad Anker survived the avalanche, and later went on to marry Alex’s widow, Jennifer, and raise Max and his two brothers. On Variety Doc Dreams presented by National Geographic, Max Lowe opened up about what drove him to tell his family’s story.
“Before I ever embarked on the journey of creating ‘Torn’ and making it into what it has become, I had thought about making a film about Alex, just as a way to process personally having more of a fleshed out idea of who he was as a man,” Lowe said. “Digging into all this archive that exists and just experiencing it for myself was kind of a draw, because up until when I started working on ‘Torn,’ hearing his voice and seeing motion video of him, even 16 years after his death, was still hard.”
It was trip to the site of Alex’s death that helped Lowe realize that confronting his memories head-on could help him and his family heal from the tragedy.
“His body was discovered in Tibet and [my younger brother Sam and I] decided to make that trip. It was coming out of that experience that I really saw [that] the potency within a story about Alex would be really imbued in the story of our family, and how each of us as individuals still interact with him even 16 years after his death, and interact with his legacy, and how we’ve all moved through that trauma of losing him.”
Lowe also highlighted how the trip and the documentary helped him and Conrad honor the untraditional family unit that arose from Alex’s death.
“One of the things that I saw coming out of Tibet when we embarked on this project was that Conrad was still struggling with this imposter syndrome and survivor’s guilt, even all these years later,” Lowe said. “And I wanted to help him see that we valued him as a father.”
Ultimately, making “Torn” showed Lowe the ways his father’s death had changed him as a child, and gave him a path to heal from that pain.
“As we started to move through the process of making the film, and started to realize some of these threads that would run the story, I started to realize more that I had lost this trust and love when Alex died,” Lowe said. “I always trusted that he would come back, up until that point. And when you’re a kid, you never consider the impossible that your parent is going to die. When you’re 10 years old, that’s just never something that you would ever imagine might happen.”
“And when that happened, I think my trust in love and giving love as freely as I had up to that point, was a little bit broken,” he continued. “And I think giving that love to Conrad became a much larger thing than my brothers in the wake of Alex’s death because of that. And giving my love up to this point in my life to anyone else has been difficult as well. So the process of making this film for me was eye opening in that sense. And in my relationship with Conrad.”
“It’s an honor to be able to share that with people,” Lowe said. “And I feel like right now, especially coming out of the last couple years, everyone’s carrying some sort of trauma, whether big or small. And looking at a questionable future on our planet. I think we need to learn how to see through this sort of stuff as we each experience it in different ways, if we want to hold on to hope.”
Watch the full conversation above.