Aiming for the top

Jimmy Chin on the Oscar shortlisted Meru.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Jimmy Chin on Mount Meru
Jimmy Chin on Mount Meru Photo: Renan Ozturk

In Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin's Oscar shortlisted Best Documentary Film nominee Meru, three of the world’s most accomplished mountain climbers, Conrad Anker, Renan Ozturk and Chin himself, attempt to conquer nature, outward and inward, to reach the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru, the heretofore impossible peak in the Himalayas. The footage is breathtaking, the obstacles seem insurmountable, the trust and friendship between them has to be complete and you will find yourself cheering them on.

Jimmy Chin:
Jimmy Chin: "I owe so much to Conrad …" Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

The Arnold Fanck films with Luis Trenker and Leni Riefenstahl The Holy Mountain (Der Heilige Berg) and The Great Leap (Der Grosse Sprung) and Storm Over Mont Blanc (Stürme Über Dem Mont Blanc) with Riefenstahl and Sepp Rist came to mind as I spoke with Jimmy Chin. He expressed his love of the ocean, told me about going to Glacier National Park and that Conrad Anker passed on to him the tradition and legacy of mountaineering.

Anne-Katrin Titze: When did your fascination with mountains start?

Jimmy Chin: When I was a kid. My parents drove me around the country in the summertime because they were librarians at the university so they had the summers off and we went and drove around. I went to Glacier National Park when I was seven or eight and I just knew and fell in love with the mountains. I knew I was going to spend my life there.

AKT: What about the sea? Do you like the ocean?

JC: I love the ocean.

AKT: You do?

Jimmy Chin:
Jimmy Chin: "Our passion for the mountains is one thing but it was ultimately still tied to a human element." Photo: Renan Ozturk

JC: Yeah. I surf all the time.

AKT: Have you seen the old mountain films with Luis Trenker and Leni Riefenstahl?

JC: Yeah, yeah. I have.

AKT: What do you think of those?

JC: It's a different feeling. I really just wanted to capture and tell the story of friendship and loyalty. You know, our passion for the mountains is one thing but it was ultimately still tied to a human element.

AKT: That's very clear. I had tears in my eyes when Conrad [Anker] says "This is for you."

JC: Yeah. The summit.

AKT: He gives you the chance but for him it is also for his mentor [Mugs Stump]. It's a generation of mountaineers passing on the tradition.

JC: Yes, it's a tradition and a legacy. I owe so much to Conrad and much of the motivation and intention behind the film was to tell Conrad's story because he is such an amazing person.

AKT: There is also the love story with his wife. The mountain [the climbing of Shark's Fin on Mount Meru] he inherits and also the wife in a way.

Mount Meru base camp
Mount Meru base camp Photo: Jimmy Chin

JC: And the responsibility of the children was also passed - which was very heavy.

AKT: You were involved in the editing, you said. The beginning is very strong. You don't set it up the usual way. How did that come about?

JC: Well, we just felt like we wanted to get people on the mountain right away. That scene we knew was a critical turning point of the second climb and in a way that was a nice place to begin and just pull people in. That's the moment where everybody is thinking - why is this happening? And then you draw it out from there.

AKT: You show a very special kind of trust many other people don't have. Do you feel privileged to know what that kind of trust feels like?

JC: I think other people know what that trust is like.

AKT: What other circumstances are you thinking of?

Leni Riefenstahl in Arnold Fanck's Der Grosse Sprung
Leni Riefenstahl in Arnold Fanck's Der Grosse Sprung

JC: I mean … on the battlefield. In certain types of jobs where there's a lot of reliance on your partner and the stakes are very very high. I think a lot of people actually understand that level of trust and friendship. A lot of the intention [with Meru] is to inspire people to be good people. Really, it's about being a good person. And hopefully people will recognise that. We wanted it to be a hopeful film.

AKT: There are a lot of films out there that are not about that. My last question, what's your relationship to couscous now [which is eaten on the mountain a lot, a lot, a lot in the film]?

JC: Ah, I don't eat very much couscous these days.

Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Barbara Kopple, Tom Brokaw and more with Jimmy Chin on Meru here.

The five films to receive nominations for Best Documentary Film will be announced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on January 14, 2016, along with the other Oscar nominations.

The Oscars will be handed out on February 28.

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