A close-up of Renan Ozturk reveals only his eyes. White bandages wrap his skull and a plastic neck brace restrains his movements, making him small.
He is scared, ashamed, and in a strange sense, determined. We watch for too long. It feels intrusive knowing his good friend is getting the footage of him at his lowest. The distance between the documentary and the audience dissolves and he now feels like a character, a close friend we’re determined to see through. Through his eyes we watch him replay the events that landed him a place in his hospital bed, both his body and mind in unfathomable trauma. Mid-shoot, while on skis in Jackson, Wyoming, Ozturk caught an edge, his body pitching down the mountain, leaving him unconscious and in critical condition. The doctors tell him if the injury to his skull had been a mere number of inches in the other direction, he would have been dead.
The miracle of Renan’s recovery and perseverance is only one of many depicted in Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi’s new documentary, Meru. Spearheaded by the skilled and passionate mountain climber, Conrad Anker, we follow Renan and Jimmy up the 21,000 foot peak of Meru, a Himalayan mountain in the Uttarakhand region of India. With temperatures dropping below -20 degrees, the three pioneers tackle the impossible whilst carrying over 200 pounds of gear and manage to create a film that cheats death and maintains a tender and even comedic light about it.
Meru isn’t just about mountain climbing as a technical skill, as monstrous, awe-inspiring and almost superhuman of a feat as, I myself, have now learned it to be. In fact, Meru, with its raw footage and appropriately understated amount of heart, captures something “spiritual,” as Conrad says. Their quest epitomizes the insatiable drive to attain something greater than oneself. The inexplicable and universal hunger we all possess to reach beyond our supposed limits, internationally acclaimed mountain climbers or not.
There’s a surprising lack of resolution or satisfactory gratification, however, when we do finally make it to the top. I had assumed that the height of Meru was going to literally be the height of Meru but I was incorrect in my assumptions. When Jimmy appears on screen, arms in the air, finally perched on top of Conrad’s 20 year dream, I, of course, applauded along with the audience, but it wasn’t right. As the shot of the mountain panned out and the credits rolled, I wondered what it was that I was missing. They attained the unattainable, climbed the 21,000 foot vertical climb no man had been capable of climbing before and yet, I wanted to see more. I considered my own criticism unfounded but perhaps the film had worked its magic. Just as Conrad’s appetite for climbing will never fade even after conquering Meru, Meru’s audience will leave inspired and refreshingly unsatisfied, looking for its next mountain to climb.
The film hits theaters this Friday, August 14.