Sunday 22 December 2013

Keeper of the Mountains (2013)

Director: Allison Otto
Star: Elizabeth Hawley
This film was an official selection at the Filmstock Arizona 2013 round of the revolving Filmstock film festival. Here's an index to my reviews of all selections.
I first saw the documentary short, Keeper of the Mountains, back in October at Filmstock in the Park, a free outdoor screening of short films at the Downtown Phoenix Civic Space. I'd heard about its subject, Elizabeth Hawley, and had read a little about her, but I hadn't seen her on video. To see her and hear her speak was to underline everything I expected of her, but with emphasis. She's an old woman, 89 years young, but one who refuses to kowtow to anyone's perceived conventions. To suggest that she's her own person is an understatement. She's more like a force of nature than a human being, yet it was fate which perhaps led her to the role she has unofficially kept for more than five decades. To describe her is impossible, but she's somewhat like the classic images of a teacher, librarian, journalist, lawyer and judge, all wrapped up together. What she does is to maintain the archives of the Himalayas, with every climber dating back to Sir Edmund Hillary and beyond falling under her purview.

I don't know how much filmmaker Allison Otto captures Miss Hawley and how much this lady's emphatic presence reaches through the camera to stamp itself directly on our conscienceness, but I was shocked to realise later that this is a 25 minute film. As leisurely as it sometimes feels, it really races onward at a rate of knots, perhaps because the camera rarely strays from Hawley herself. Her no nonsense attitude and staccato speech ensure that we're always hearing just the facts, ma'am. We can't help but believe that we're listening to something important and, for the most part, we are. It's almost a challenge to be as sharp a listener as she is a speaker. We do encounter climbers during the film, but only briefly and in Hawley's company, so it's nigh on impossible to focus on them. Those of special note, such as Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb Everest solo or without oxygen, are relegated to the end credits, where we can concentrate on their words and memories better.

It's difficult for me to figure out why Hawley fascinates me so much, as there are a few reasons. In fact, perhaps that's why she fascinates me so much. This film ably illustrates each of them, through careful questions or just simple observation. A famously private person, she gave Otto some insightful history and even backed it up by reading some of her letters home from Khatmandu in the early sixties, where she'd ended up as a reporter for Time and stayed as a reporter for Reuters. She's a strong woman, one who understands who she is. She flouts every convention, not only those that would frown on a young lady travelling around the world in the late fifties. She speaks her mind without fear. In short, she's who she wants to be and she has no unfulfilled wishes before she dies. It's magnificent irony to realise that this ultimate authority on Himalayan climbing has never tackled a mountain herself. She's a character, pure and simple, and this film ably captures that. I only wish I could watch it for the first time again.

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