Every now and then a film comes along that defies traditional genre labels. The ‘documentary’ is a trusted label that promises to truthfully ‘document’ some aspect of the real world. Calling Mountain (2017) a documentary shows how inadequate labels can be for what is a film meditation on nature that leaves viewers to create their own message.
Mountain is a visual and aural ode to the beauty, mystery, and power of mountains. It draws on 2,000 hours of filming across twenty-two countries and is narrated sparsely and with solemnity by Willem Dafoe. The Australian Chamber Orchestra provides a rousing score that blends seamlessly with the visuals. The film showcases the world’s highest places rather than any individual mountain. Unlike the brilliant Sherpa (2016) which had a coherent social and political message, Mountain is a poetic meditation on mountains everywhere. It includes footage of early mountaineers as well as examples of the modern-day exploitation of mountains. It lingers over their majestic beauty, sneering briefly at queues of commercial trekkers, the clearing of ski slopes for paying customers, and the never-ending cable-cars, chair lifts and helicopters that move hordes of skiers and hikers. The film admires not only snow-covered peaks, but all kinds of mountains and all kinds of mountain activities, including people in wing-suits or on mountain bikes jumping off cliffs and climbers grappling up vertical rock walls where a single misstep can be fatal.
A higher aesthetic is created when you mix stunning mountain-scape cinematography with a superb orchestral score. It is spell-binding for at least half the time, and then the repetition and lack of narrative begins to bite. While the score enhances the visuals, it can also feel like one long musical cliché. Just as we can identify Jaws and Psycho by their signature musical tropes, the dominant orchestral effects in Mountain are predictable aural cues telling us that scaling cliffs is dangerous or that flying over a mountain peak will reveal a wondrous valley below. Some might ask why the film title takes the singular form when it shows many unnamed mountains in many unnamed countries. The reverence given to the subject does not include respect for identity or acknowledgement of place, so the film does not work as a travelogue. The anonymity of the mountains is also reflected in editing that often seems random and incoherent. In one second, a climber is scaling an icy sheer wall, in another, a mountain bike jumps off a ledge. The brief mention of harm caused by commercialisation is tokenistic and so much documentary potential is left unexplored. This means the film is about appearance not substance.
If this is a documentary, it is not clear what it documents. It would make a thrilling short film on a big screen or as a visual background to a live orchestral performance. While the individual aural and visual elements have great beauty, without a narrative purpose they are lovely to admire but all too easy to forget.
Director: Jennifer Peedom
Stars: Willem Dafoe