The opening images of the documentary A Life Ascending brought to mind Wallace Stevens' "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
With A Life Ascending, filmmaker Stephen Grynberg follows acclaimed mountaineer Ruedi Beglinger and his family through the daily life they've created in the remote mountains of British Columbia. While Ruedi takes guests out on daily ski trips, his wife Nicoline manages the lodge and takes care of their two daughters. Guests come in by helicopter for the week. Stephen was a guest long before he started shooting this gorgeous documentary and it shows in the way this thoughtful film unfolds.
The landscape is one of the prominent characters in A Life Ascending. We see footage of Ruedi teaching guests what to do in case of avalanche and this, like the moving eye of the blackbird, foreshadows an event that took place in 2003. The film opens with Ruedi checking the snow conditions through careful measurement. Having grown up in the Swiss Alps and excelled in his work, Ruedi is known as a guide's guide. But the risks that he prepares for and faces daily came full force into his life when an avalanche claimed seven people he had out on the mountain.
The deaths of these people left a profound mark on Ruedi and his family. Nicoline describes it as the Before and After of their lives. You feel this in the film, the grief, sadness, questioning, and ultimately the connection that helps Ruedi and everyone in their community cope with this tragedy.
I asked Ruedi about the process of being filmed and having Stephen and his crew living so close in his family's life while shooting:
From a personal viewpoint, making the film, it was a huge experience for me. He [Stephen] asked interesting, very deep questions. Tons and tons of questions, very deep ones. Those are not questions you just answer. They come with you and they live with you after. Later on, you still keep thinking about all these questions that he asked. I think that a big part of how you make your next step in your life comes from this.
I wasn't prepared to like this movie as much as I did. As I watched, I almost felt as though I were watching a short story rather than a documentary film. The best short stories always feel as though they've ended too soon and you're left wanting to live a little longer with the characters. Themes like loss and closeness are layered and deep, though not hammered out specifically. Director and producer Stephen Grynberg has this kind of light touch and a deep connection with the people he interviews. Ruedi, Nicoline, their daughters, staff and guests are all profiled through their actions as much as their words. As a viewer, you get a sense of everyday life at the lodge and up on the mountain.
I asked Stephen about the process of finding the story and how the film evolved. He admitted that it was quite an exploration and when he started shooting, he didn't really know where the film would lead. He did say that he wasn't interested in making a straight biographical piece profiling Ruedi. We also talked about the editing process and how important it was to get the pacing just right, to capture the sense of quiet and power of the landscape:
That was really the hard thing to get to. It took many, many months of editing, but... there was the conscious editing where you're thinking about story and how the film fits together. And then there's this other unconscious sort of thing that you probably know as a writer, where you'll be crafting something and you don't always know why. But the piece is kind of evolving somewhere. I gave the film a lot of time that way. I would edit to get to the point where it seemed okay and then I'd walk away for a couple weeks. When I came back to it, something would jump out -- a scene that had been there -- I would see it as not necessary. I wouldn't have been able to see that before. So part of it was giving it a lot of time.
Stephen's appreciation for Ruedi's work, Nicoline and their daughters shines through in the film. I'm remembering a scene where Ruedi's been answering questions about the avalanche. You see Ruedi and Nicoline leaving the courthouse and Nicoline gently reaches out for Ruedi. It's touching without ever veering toward sentiment. Stephen talked about his feeling for what Ruedi does and the way he lives his life:
I wasn't really an outsider in the sense that -- I can't tell you I aspire to Ruedi's life only because I don't have the skills to aspire to his life, but I have the heart to aspire to Ruedi's life. The other thing is that I wasn't a city person coming to look at what these weird people do. This is something I would love to do. I would love my kids to be raised this way. I think maybe that was a part of it too. I was coming in with a kind of built-in sense of admiration for this life. I had never really thought about until I'm saying it to you now, but I think that's part of it. Almost more admiration than fascination.
I asked Ruedi why, why take such risks. I'm still not sure if why is really the right question. But he did share some thoughts on that subject.
"I'm not sure if you can say why go to these lengths. I think in life we want to explore and everybody wants to climb their personal Mt. Everest. For somebody it might be go for a long walk on the beach, for another person climb a high peak; it doesn't matter what. I think we're meant to explore ourselves, explore our boundaries and kind of get inspired from what's beyond it. So we want to go there. Yes, some people do go a lot further than others. And in the end, it doesn't matter. For the one person, the long, long walk on the beach is just as much of an adventure as for another guy climbing a big peak."
A Life Ascending is available on DVD February 28th. Check the website for news, screenings and more.
For more on my conversations with Ruedi and Stephen, go to www.betweenparents. And I was lucky enough to talk with Nicoline about the making of this film, motherhood and living in the mountains for MomsLA.com.