Photos by Isaiah Williams
During the creative process, you can’t always anticipate how events will unfold. This is an important lesson I learned from my recent conversation with Renan Ozturk, an accomplished expedition climber, landscape artist and filmmaker. Ozturk was one of the creative minds behind the film Meru. Shortly after our Jan. 31 interview, Ozturk and his team reinforced this lesson to me by winning the Audience Award for Best U.S. Documentary at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.
Meru documents the historic 2011 first ascent of the 20,702 foot Shark’s Fin on India’s Mount Meru Central by three American climbers—Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk. Although the very first ascent of this Himalayan mountain was made in 2001 by a Russian alpinist Valeri Babanov, the American trio were the first to climb the Shark’s Fin—a 400-meter-high prow of stone that for many years had remained unclimbed—a mountain ascent that, in the words of Ozturk, was one of “the most meaningful things he has ever experienced.”
Before the Sundance acceptance speech and official award selfie that followed, What Weekly caught up with Ozturk in his home-base, Utah, where over the past week he has been sharing time between introducing his new film to the Sundance audience and sharing his paintings at the nearby Gallery MAR. It turns out that Meru is just one of his many exciting projects, but one that has been a long time in the making.
Ivan Petrov: Looking back on the film, do you think you have accomplished what you were hoping to?
Renan Ozturk: Yes, I think we have. Meru was a lot of work: seven years and three full re-edits! The storyline of the film is quite simple as it documents our climb on Mount Meru, but a series of once-in-a-lifetime events takes place during the climb. The third edit of the film was done with the supervision of Jimmy Chin’s wife Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Bob Eisenhardt who brought out the best performances from all of us and gave the most truthful depiction of the characters. Together, they took the film we had worked on for so long further than we could have done ourselves.
IP: Is it true that the original idea for making this into a feature documentary did not occur to you until after you had summited the Shark’s Fin and returned home?
RO: Yes, this is more or less true. We were shooting towards something but we had no idea it would go this far. We did not know how long or where the footage would go. We certainly did not set out to make a feature documentary from the beginning. It was the opposite: a climbing expedition with friends that then lead to a series of events that eventually became the story for the film.
IP: What was the biggest challenge in making this film? I heard you mention that the actual making of the film was possibly harder than the climb itself?
RO: The biggest challenge was the mental stamina that was required to get all the footage, to deal with changing editors and with the associated logistics. Meru film was a big team effort. It’s hard to point out a single biggest challenge. It was rather a series of challenges that required a lot of work.
IP: Occasional Instagram updates show you at work with a canvas on a mountainside whenever you are not climbing or making films. Can you tell us a bit about this other passion of yours? How did you develop your interest in painting?
RO: The painting actually came first before I got into filmmaking. It started at the same time as climbing. I spent five years on various expeditions just traveling around the world. Over those years, my artwork gradually evolved into film. In comparison to painting, filmmaking seemed like a similar visual endeavor, but one that allows for a deeper narrative of remote places and their people. After I started out with painting, I experimented more and more with animation and it became animated art. Now I have moved into pure cinematography and greater storytelling.
IP: How do you decide on your next painting location? Is it planned in advance or do you just pack a canvas and find your inspiration once you are on location?
RO: Throughout my journey as an artist I have always found most of my inspiration in the natural landscape. All of my work is location- and expedition-based. I usually do a few expeditions a year, but it is getting harder and harder to do a big piece of art within the framework of a big video production. All perspectives are gauged from being in the place. I get my drive from being on location and working with the unpredictable and at times harsh mountain weather: if it is really windy —I would pile rocks along the edges of a canvas, if it is raining—I would let the colors bleed and keep on painting.
IP: You have been working on another film that is expected to be released later this year—Sherpa Film—that will tell the story of another iconic mountain—Mount Everest—from the point of view of the Sherpa people that live around it. Is the main character of this film Everest or its people?
RO: The Sherpa people are definitely the main character of the film. In fact, over the course of the project one particular Sherpa—Phurba Tashi—became the main character. He has climbed Mount Everest 21 times and is tied for record for the most total ascents of this highest mountain on Earth by any person. The film documents him as he prepares for an expedition, leaving his family behind over the most tragic Everest climbing season on record, and finally coming back home at the end of the season. Through Phurba Tashi’s unique perspective the film tells the story of the most tragic Everest experience of all time and ties it back to the history of mountaineering on the Everest and to the first ascent by Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary.
IP: You have some knowledge of Nepali. Does that help you connect with the Sherpa community?
RO: Yes, I can speak some Nepali with the Sherpa, but they also have their own distinct Sherpa language which is a Tibetan dialect. Speaking Nepali has certainly allowed me to establish a closer connection with the subjects of the film. As a result, the Sherpa people opened up to me in ways I have never imagined.
IP: What was most interesting for you in working on your two latest films (Meru and Sherpa Film)?
RO: It is always interesting to see the process of making a film—from the very first shot, to writing the story, to how it gets distributed—this process takes on a life of its own. And yet the making of these two films was also different: the Sherpa Film has been shot and edited in one and a half years with a dedicated team of filmmakers, while the Meru film took many more years of work to come to the surface, with lots of post-production between three different editorial teams.
IP: How do you balance your time between climbing, filmmaking, painting, and the rest of you life? Is there some secret formula to how you go about prioritizing your work and life projects—based on personal interests or just going with next biggest b?
RO: I try to find stories that are the most meaningful. This usually involves doing one annual personal trip that combines both climbing and art, whether it is filming or painting. A good example of such personal project is my collaboration with Freddie Wilkinson titled “The Sanctity of Space” that follows in the footsteps of photographer-explorer Brad Washburn (best known for pioneering the use of aerial photography in his analysis of the mountains of Alaska). This climb was personally even more significant than Meru and came together as a result of a collaboration with co-director Freddie Wilkinson. I hope we can release it by the end of 2015.
Ip: You’ve said before that creativity and climbing go hand in hand, but what drives your creativity? Where do you get your creative inspiration from?
RO: I get my inspiration from the landscapes of wild places combined with cultures that live there, whether it is the mountains of the Himalaya or the Antarctic. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be a mountain range—it can be the deserts of Chad or the valleys and plains of Myanmar. Since the time I started out with my dual career of a climber and a painter, I have met many interesting characters living on the road and I have developed a deeper appreciation for a traveling lifestyle. Being there and interacting with the landscape is what I find incredibly inspiring.
IP: Can you say a few words about any other exciting projects you may have in the pipeline?
RO: Following the Sundance Film Festival, I will be departing to Nepal for a month to work on another, more artistic and poetic film about the Himalaya. It will involve a lot of high altitude aerial shooting and visuals, as well as on the ground cinematography that will be similar in style to the visuals of the film Baraka directed by Ron Fricke. Through this collaborative project, myself and the Camp 4 Collective will share our love letter about the Himalaya with the rest of the world.
In anticipation of the Sundance award night, I congratulated Ozturk on the recent premiere of Meru at Sundance—which to me seemed quite an achievement in and of itself. We can now officially congratulate him and the entire film team on winning the much deserved Audience Award. The film was very well received despite getting initial mixed reactions. According to Ozturk, it appeals to both a young and old audience and has a wider reach beyond the regular climbing community. There have only been a few screenings so far at Sundance, but all have received standing ovations—something that Renan and his crew may have to get used to, now that their already acclaimed but still brand new film begins its journey around the world.
We leave you with Renan Ozturk’s personal film reel that will give you a better glimpse of his journey as a creative artist: