Jimmy Chin and His Powerful Journey in the Mountain Climbing Documentary ‘MERU’

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Meru Expedition, Garwhal, IndiaPreston Barta // Features Editor

MERU | 87 min | R
Director: Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
Cast: Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Renan Ozturk, Jon Krakauer, Jennifer Lowe-Anker, Grace Chin and Amee Hinkley

Near the summit of Mount Meru, Jimmy Chin’s beat yet nimble hands move along the rocks and ice above, finding the best path to make the remaining climb– this is the heart of his passion and career.

Chin has a strong love for travel, climbing, exploration and photography, and it has led him to some of the world’s greatest expeditions. At 12, he “had [his] first epiphany about mountains.” After a family vacation to Glacier National Park and witnessing the allure of the West and its features, he “was changed forever.” Now, you can see Chin conquer what was considered an impossible peak in the harrowing yet moving documentary film MERU.

Jimmy Chin, co-director and one of the three subjects of MERU.

Jimmy Chin, co-director and one of the three subjects of MERU.

In the film, audiences are thrown into a world where the air is thin and the odds are limited. MERU sees three of the world’s best alpinists (Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk) as they struggle to find their way through obsession and injury to take on the 20,700 foot “Shark’s Fin” atop Mount Meru, one the most coveted prizes in the high-stakes game of climbing.

As children, we all carried a great sense of wonder with us. While it may be stored away now that we are older, it was a strong attribute when we were young and our imaginations ran wild. Chin still carries that wonder, tackling the hardest expeditions known, and doing so with a smile on his face and a camera in hand.

While mountaineering is undoubtedly one of the most exhilarating sports out there, it has produced very little quality out of the gates of Hollywood. In documentary filmmaking, on the other hand, there have been a handful of excellent films that have explored the subject, including THE MAN WHO SKIED DOWN EVEREST (1975) and Chin’s other contributing-work THE WILDEST DREAM (2010). But, when it comes to a tangible and immersive experience, MERU takes all. It’s an unforgettable adventure that puts you on the side of Meru as these three brave men take on the impossible and document their every step.

“I’m very comfortable in that space as a climber,” said Chin when asked about the extra worry of filming while his life is hanging by ropes and grips. “[MERU] was the most challenging project I’ve ever had to shoot, but I’ve been shooting expeditions in that kind of environment for years. So much of it is about efficiency and knowing what could happen.” Chin and his team are always one-step ahead. They, of course, take every possible scenario into account, but sometimes the inevitable happens. Whether it’s a slip or an avalanche, “the trick is the craft.”

When you’re out on that mountain, taking on nature’s hardest elements you’re bound to learn a thing or two about yourself. For Chin, it was the way he is that led him into those intense situations. In fact, he feels he is at his best when he’s in those situations. “I’m a lot less organized and patient when I’m not in that zone,” joked Chin. “But if you give me my tools and the mountain, you have my total focus. You learn a lot about your limits.”

Crossing these new frontiers can often lead to a change in perspective. “I feel like I was a different person by the time I finished MERU,” said Chin. “Eight years of my life went into this. I started in my early 30s and ended in my early 40s.”

Renan Ozturk during the long descent descent from the summit back to the portaledge camp after 17 hours on the move. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Chin, Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk during the long descent descent from the summit back to the portaledge camp after 17 hours on the move. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

From the time he started in 2008 until the finished edit, Chin came to appreciate the little things in life when all was said and done, especially when he treated the editing process like he was constructing a movie narrative. “I had to look at myself objectively,” said Chin. By the end of the film, audiences will feel as though they abandoned a documentary structure for that of a film. Each of these climbers had their own reasons for climbing Meru, which Chin highlights: “I had to look at myself, [Anker] and [Ozturk] as characters, and look at their internal conflicts they were battling.”

Now, it isn’t news when it comes to documentary filmmaking that the end result often winds up being different from the film you set out to make. Things happen and situations take hold, steering your plans into a new direction. In MERU, their journey to venture to the top of the mountain, like all prior attempts, fell short of the goal. “I didn’t think about making a feature length documentary until after 2011 when we went back to Mount Meru,” said Chin. “Throughout the process the goal was to always shoot the trip and document it in the best way possible, kind of like our ambition, which was to climb the best possible mountain we could to the best of our abilities. Over time things changed and I realized there haven’t been films out there that have spoke to what’s important in climbing and the reasons why we climb.” For Chin, films have ignored to show the stakes and what the sport is really about: the friendships and relationships made along the way. “In 2011, it was pretty clear what I wanted to say. I wanted to focus on the friendships, especially with [Anker].”

Chin’s friendship with Anker stretches back 10 years. “The first time I went climbing with him he took me under his wing and there was that instant recognition that we worked well together.” From there Chin saw Anker go from a climbing buddy to a true legend of the mountain. “He’s such an incredible person and so inspiring on many levels,” said Chin. Through the film, we are shown the conflict of a renowned mountaineer. “It’s not all fist-pumping on top of mountain,” joked Chin. “It’s almost everything but that.”

MERU won the coveted Audience Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary category, and it stands a fighting chance at being recognized at the next year’s Oscars as well. But, when it comes to great filmmaking, one often wonders what the filmmaker’s next plan of action is. “I have no real plans as of now,” Chin said. “I just want to get MERU out there, and after another month or so, I will look for other projects, which will probably be another film.”

MERU is available in stores today.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.