Mountain: A doc to watch because it's there

By Jim Slotek

Rating: A

It beats me why imdb doesn’t list narration work as an acting credit (it's under "Self"), but Willem Dafoe has given passionate voice to some trippy and existential documentaries lately.

Last year we heard him muse on the self-awareness of odd-toed ungulates in the animal-advocacy film Do Donkeys Act? And this week, Dafoe’s dream-like, pensive voice takes us skyward with the words of British author Robert MacFarlane (Mountains Of The Mind) - the verbal background for an oddly contemplative musical/visual experiment simply called Mountain.
The film is by former climbing-camera operator Jennifer Peedom, whose last film, Sherpa, was also in a mountainous vein. Mountain was essentially a commission by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and maestro/composer Richard Tognetti (Master and Commander: The Far Side Of The World) to create a visual complement to a score of old-and-new classical works.

If you find this disturbing, maybe this isn't the doc for you.

If you find this disturbing, maybe this isn't the doc for you.

She fulfilled her part of the equation with extreme dedication. After a black-and-white opening of the Orchestra tuning their instruments, Mountain flies with the speed of Superman to peaks in 20 countries plus Antarctica, the camera fairly revering these monsters of geology as gods, the way we’re told ancient people once did.

The movie makes extensive and bold use of the now de rigueur drone-cams, swooping in and out of crevasses and over cliffs. This is a movie most people can visually enjoy – with the clear exception of anyone with a fear of heights. Mountain is a virtual roller-coaster ride of stone, ice and snow.

The movie also notes the relatively recent aspect of human history whereby we see mountains as existential challenges to our mortality. Whereas people hundreds of years ago were content to stare at mountains humbly in wonder (and wouldn’t dream of climbing one), today they are a symbol of our impermanence, home to participatory experiences that invite death.

These include mountain-climbs of course (and a visit to Everest, where the narration becomes a scold, of rich people hiring poor Sherpas to take the risks). But it also includes high-altitude skiing, para-skiing, wing-suit gliding off cliffs thousands of feet high and ice-climbing. At some moments, Mountain is practically a “snuff film,” as when we see skiers engulfed by avalanches, clearly incurring extreme injury if not death. (While most of the film is independently shot, some footage is acquired, and probably familiar to people who do their extreme thrill-seeking on YouTube).

At 70 minutes, Mountain clearly doesn’t overstay its welcome. Every minute of the film is variously contemplative, awe-inspiring, cringe-inducing and gob-smacking. The words are indeed a terrific complement to the vision, but it’s the glistening, indifferent giants who star in the film that make the experience.

Mountain. Directed by Jennifer Peedom. With narration by Willem Dafoe and music by the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Opens in Toronto January 12, 2018 at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.