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‘Free Solo’ filmmakers capture Yosemite from its edge

In Free Solo, documentary filmmaking couple Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin immerse the audience into the mind of free climber Alex Honnold, who is so determined to achieve his goal that he is willing to put death on the line.

With such a specific topic, yet an obvious choice, for a heart-pounding documentary, Honnold, Chai and Jimmy have decided to bring the film to festivals all around America.

Their most recent stop at the Mill Valley Film Festival returns them to Northern California, where Yosemite is only a handful of hours away.

Vasarhelyi laid down her reasoning on why Honnold is deserving of his own documentary:

“We look for stories that have that depth to them and Alex as a character always had that depth. There’s that story about why Alex began climbing without ropes.”

She added:

“It was scarier to speak to another person than to go out and climb by himself with hands and not a rope. And I feel like everyone has some sort of fear like that in their lives…to overcome that, was really moving to us.”

Chin nodded his head in agreement with his life and professional partner.

Honnold’s particular approach to climbing El Capitan without harnesses was planned out carefully. He prepared for years before even attempting to climb the rock beast, so with every small and large victory, he needed to celebrate as much as his focused mind could let him.

As Honnold overcame a major turning point on the chosen route to climb El Cap — the Boulder Problem in the midpoint of the wall — he made sure to release a sigh of relief. He said:

“It’s about balancing. It’s certainly worth acknowledging the moments when you’re like ‘that was perfect,’ ‘this is amazing’ and ‘I’m through the hardest part,’ and the next 400 feet above that were relatively easy.”

Honhold added:

“You can’t stay 100 percent deeply focused for four hours. It’s almost like pulsing. You only have to give it the 100 percent total commitment for the parts you need it. It was important for me to relax in the places that I could.”

Honnold rubs parts of his hands a bit, not because he is nervous, but because looking in his eyes, he is a climber, itching to use his hands again.

Sometimes the person driven by excitement isn’t seen on other people around them, like the people filming a potential death. The only conclusion was to get on board and not be phased.

Vasarhelyi said about editing and filming Free Solo:

“Ultimately, we all became pretty immune and that’s what’s really nice thing about watching with audiences.”

Honnold chimed in:

“In a lot of ways that’s not unlike the process of getting ready to do the actual climb. You just desensitize yourself over time.”

In Free Solo, the most-worried talking heads were crew members on the doc. Some on the ground and some on the side of the mountain all expressed nervousness while still being able to film Honnold attempt the impossible.

As a climber, Chin was able to be a filmmaker on the side of a mountain, capturing Honnold’s every move from different extreme angles, especially eagle-eye camera shots. Chin said:

“You can be two feet off the ground and shoot someone — we call it the butt shot — it’s the same shot as if they were 3,000 feet up.  … Usually if you’re climbing, you shoot down so you can give a sense of perspective and the exposure. In one moment you can let people know how high they are, how exposed it is and how scary it might be looking.”

Technical aspects aside, Chin and his cameramen were able to make the audience feel like they were watching a made-up movie. It’s difficult to comprehend that a human could accomplish this feat of fear and heights.

With any skilled ability, thinking, feeling and doing are the three most important steps to practice. Honnold describes himself as doing all three and how they were musts for him:

“Thinking, feeling and doing. They were each like three legs of a stool. You have to do each. It’s interesting because the feeling and the doing are limited by the amount of energy you have because it’s just tiring to climb a mountain all day.”

Honnold said as he chuckles:

“Whereas the thinking, in theory, I can do an unlimited amount of, just sitting in my car anytime I’m resting. I think I did them in varying amounts depending on my motivation and my energy.”

Thinking about climbing something in a way no one has ever tried would scare the general non-climber. Is it the fear of death?

Vasarhelyi, Chin and Honnold hope to not make the El Cap climb about death, but about a respect and celebration for life. Honnold said:

“I think looking at death forces you to think about how you’re living your life and, hopefully, that’s the bigger take away. Death is just a way of focusing on that.”

Chin follows:

“When you experience near death moments or you’re aware of the likelihood of it or if it’s right in your face, you do think about life differently. Time is really you’re only currency in a lot of ways. … I think that awareness is a really good thing and if you do spend time doing what we do, it makes you very conscious of it all the time.”

Vasarhelyi sits quietly in between the two climbers contemplating about what she wants to say, peaking Honnold’s interest as well.

Then she says:

“I think I married a climber that I don’t believe he’ll die. So in terms of immediate death, I think about Jimmy. … I think there’s something that happens when you have children. It changes when you have kids, when your time on this planet becomes very precious.”

In these beautiful hours that we have on Earth, Free Solo is a reminder to pursue your goals, no matter how difficult or how time consuming.

Vasarhelyi and Chin use their time focusing on humanitarian efforts and adventurous and grounded exploration around the world, capturing these points in time via documentary film style.

Honnold started the Honnold Foundation after garnering the attention of free soloing El Cap. Their mission statement on their website reads “Promoting solar energy for a more equitable world.”

National Geographic has posted release dates for select theaters showing Free Solo.

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