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Archive for September, 2015

Everest The Movie

September 23rd, 2015 No comments

everestEverest as a film has perhaps been unfairly criticised for having some of the messiness of  a real-life expedition – too many characters and an untidy ending –  faults (and strengths) it shares with the other adaptation made from a Jon Krakauer book, Into The Wild. And it’s true there are moments the only way you can tell the men with frozen beards apart is by the colour of their product placement North Face jackets.

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The class British scriptwriters – William Nicholson and Simon Beaufoy – have fashioned a story which ostensibly has no links with the Krakauer book, but given that it was his Into Thin Air which made the 1996 tragedy on Everest so famous, his shadow looms large over it. He also makes an appearance in the film as an embedded journalist in the team who accompanies them to the summit.

The film hits one nail hard on the head – that some of the dangers which arise are the consequence of the new phenomenon of commercial guided expeditions up Everest, so that less competent mountaineers are able to attempt a summit they should arguably not be on.  But they fail to bring out one crucial argument in Krakauer’s book:  whereas in the past all members of a team would look out for one another, now the guides look out for the clients but who is looking out for the guides?  Of those who die on screen in the film, three are guides and two clients.

There is one crucial moment when lead guide Rob Hall has an uncharacteristic failure of judgement and allows himself to escort a client up to the summit way past the cut-off point when they should already be returning; the sort of misjudgement that is easy to happen when people are hypoxic and under extraordinary stress.  But also one that occurs when you are no longer dealing with a band of brothers but rather of responsible uncles with their nephews.

Everest_poster highr res 2The filmmakers were lucky to have David Brashears on board, both because of his presence on Everest in 1996 at the time the tragedy unfolded (Brashears was making an IMAX film and his character is played by an actor in this one), and for his help on how on earth you make a movie at such challenging altitudes.  While some sections were shot on Everest itself – in mid January, so freezing temperatures – which cinematographer Salvatore Totino described as extraordinarily difficult in the Hollywood Reporter – the Hillary Step, where much of the most intense dramatic action occurs, was recreated at Pinewood.  As the second unit crew were shooting some remaining scenes of the film at Camp II on Everest, an avalanche struck, killing 16 Sherpa guides with other expeditions.

A facile criticism of the film is that this is such an exclusively male affair.  This just mirrors the actual expeditions which were almost exclusively male – although it is true that the two female climbers are given paper thin characterisation – but also is a reflection of how a tunnel-visioned imperative to get to the top of something, regardless of disruption to family, is a not very commendable part of the male psyche.  Scenes of the two wives back home – Rob Hall’s is played by Keira Knightley – and the way they react as events unfold on the mountain are handled deftly and movingly by Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur, an interesting choice, given his indie background.  The wives’ reactions are not nearly as forthright as those of the widows of some Everest fatalities, who have sometimes expressed bitterness in documentaries at the way their husbands put summits before family.

The movie succeeds in many ways – a particularly fine performance by Jake Gyllenhaal as rival, maverick guide Scott Fischer, and a stunning recapturing of the landscape of Nepal.  See it in 3-D, so that, in the best traditions of filmmaking, the movie takes you there in a way which means you never, ever have to do it in real life – thank God. For one thing, the film amply demonstrates is that the death toll on Everest is not worth it.  Anyone who wants to experience a sublime mountain moment can do so elsewhere below the death zone without putting their own lives – and others – at risk.

Treasures of the Indus – Filming in Pakistan

September 8th, 2015 1 comment
CCCC5583 Pakistani selfie Lahore lors

Pakistani selfie (C) Hugh Thomson 2015

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Before we went, Pakistan had always looked like it was going to be difficult. It took three months just to get the filming visas even though what we were making was not on a politically sensitive subject; we were there to explore the sometimes forgotten ancient history of the country.

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Security was to be paramount. The mosque where we filmed sufi musicians had been suicide bombed in 2010 by the Taliban with the death of 42 worshippers. A few weeks after we had planned to film the border crossing at Wagah, where Pakistani and Indian guards try to compete with each other for the most militaristic display, it too was suicide bombed. While filming at several remote old Buddhist monasteries, we were interrupted courteously but firmly by security questioning our right to film.

The key to filming in Pakistan was, as ever, finding a fixer who could deliver – in our case Khalid Waseem, based in Rawalpindi, who came recommended by several other productions. This meant that most of the cultural institutions where we wanted to film did not charge a fee. In Lahore, they let us light up some of the Mughal palaces at night for some spectacular sequences and turned on all the disused fountains in the pleasure gardens. We were able to use drone cameras and satellite phones and, with an immensely experienced cameraman, Spike Geilinger, the drone cameras proved invaluable for getting an overview of large archaeological remains like the ancient Indus city of Harappa.

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For one memorable sequence, we took boats across a remote lake in the Buddhist heartland around Gandhara – a fascinating area, which still shows the influence of Alexander the Great and the Greeks when they arrived and took this new religion to their heart.  Sadly, many of the old Buddhist sites have now been mutilated, but some of the small remote ones still survive.

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Our presenter, Sona Datta, who has worked as a curator at the British Museum, knows Pakistan well. The dramas played out by the vanished cultures of the Indus – the battle with climate change, the clash of civilisations – are still being played out today and Sona and I both wanted to ensure the series addressed this; so we interviewed political commentator Ahmed Rashid as well as contemporary artists like the Biennale–exhibiting star of Pakistani art, Rashid Rana.

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boys in Lahore Old City by (c) Hugh Thomson 2015

Lahore is one of those cities of the subcontinent like Old Delhi or Varanasi where a shot presents itself almost in every direction – particularly after dark, when what Kipling called ‘the city of dreadful night’ comes alive in smoke-filled narrow alleyways lit up by the Badshahi Mosque beyond.  For Eid, we filmed from rickshaws down those alleys as camels and all the streetlife of Pakistani crowded around us, before eating goat’s brain curry washed down with iced drinks of mint, cumin and salt in the havelis of the walled city.

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For the other important role of any good fixer is to know how to schedule the last shot of each day near a decent restaurant.

Hugh Thomson is the Series Producer and Director of Treasures of the Indus, a 3-part series beginning on Monday August 31st on BBC 4 at 9.00 pm.  Catch it on iPlayer