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Eliza Kubarska • Director of The Wall of Shadows

“In the mountains, everything is black and white – only here in the lowlands do we have many shades of grey”


- We talked to Eliza Kubarska, an experienced alpinist and the director of the Hot Docs title The Wall of Shadows

Eliza Kubarska  • Director of The Wall of Shadows
(© David Kaszlikowski)

In The Wall of Shadows [+see also:
interview: Eliza Kubarska
film profile
, shown in Hot Docs’ International Spectrum, Eliza Kubarska returns to the festival that awarded her the Special Jury Prize for 2014’s Walking Under Water. Now she turns her attention to a Sherpa family, asked to lead a group of climbers up the Kumbhakarna Mountain in Nepal – even though, according to local beliefs, it’s sacred.

Cineuropa: At one point, a person mumbles: “This film is not about climbing; it’s about people.” You are an alpinist, too, so why did you decide to focus on the “backstage” instead of the expedition?
Eliza Kubarska: I always do that. I have been climbing for over 25 years. At a certain point, I decided to make films, and because I travelled so much because of the climbing, I started making them about mountains. I made my debut in Greenland [What Happened on Pam Island], to make things easier I guess, and documented my attempt to reach one of the highest sea cliffs in the world with my partner, who is my husband now. It was really a love story. Later, in K2. Touching the Sky [+see also:
film profile
, I talked about the children of the climbers who had died on the K2 mountain, and now I show this really extreme expedition to the Himalayas, but from the point of view of the Sherpas. They have been working on them for over 100 years and yet are somehow omitted from these stories. I decided to give them a voice. Although these questions about why people go to the mountains and why they take risks always appear in the end.

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We all have this romantic vision of the lonely “conqueror of the peak”, so could that perhaps be why not everyone wants to talk about the people who make it possible? And for whom it’s an actual job?
I had the privilege and the opportunity to show what Sherpas really think about it. Of course, it took a lot of effort and time – I was making this film for four years. The Sherpas I show are from eastern Nepal, and you can’t just drop in there for coffee – to reach their village, I had to walk for two weeks, in very harsh conditions. I think they appreciated it. When I finally got there and explained what I wanted to do, they were happy to participate. Sherpas are very warm people, and we have built a relationship based on trust. We recorded their very personal conversations, also about how they see us, the climbers. I think we were able to do something that no one has ever done before.

You also recorded a long marital quarrel that feels so normal and ordinary.
I love this scene. My cinematographer and co-writer, Piotr Rosołowski, has an amazing skill that I discovered when we made Walking Under Water, about nomadic Badjao people who live on the sea around Borneo. We didn’t understand their language at all, and it was the same this time, as the Tibetan dialect doesn’t really resemble anything else. But because of his talent or his great empathy, Piotr is able to understand people’s facial expressions, their gestures. Here, he noticed some tension, a conflict. I am so grateful for their trust, for letting me film these scenes.

Their work results in an internal conflict, a struggle with their beliefs. The mountain they are going to climb is sacred, but the alpinists shown here don’t really seem to care.
As a climber, I see what has happened on Everest. The rules have been broken – the highest mountain in the world has turned into Disneyland. And Everest was the holiest of mountains, Mother Earth! She lost her sanctity, and the Sherpas agreed to that because they have no choice. This is often their only income. I wanted to film the process through which a sacred mountain loses its “status”. I assumed that Kangchenjunga was sacred – the third-highest mountain in the world. When I got there, they said: “No, Eliza, it’s not holy any more. Only from India’s side.” But Kumbhakarna still is, and when I saw its northern wall, 3,000 metres of almost vertical rock, I said to myself: “No wonder.” It’s virtually impossible to climb, and yet there was an expedition heading there. As the Sherpa’s wife tells him: “Listen, God will understand. He knows you have no choice, that you want to educate your son.” Their religion is very close to me; their God understands people. That’s the thing – then we look at this world, and we see the highest peaks. But it’s the kingdom of the Gods.

The way I see it, Kumbhakarna used all of his powers to hinder the course of this trip, even by sowing discord between the alpinists. He has put us all through hell: me and my entire team. We went there at the end of February because the warmer it gets, the higher the risk of an avalanche. Nobody expected, however, that we would end up in the middle of the Himalayan winter! Yes, Kumbhakarna sure worked his magic. People are often guided by emotions, and in the mountains it’s even more pronounced. Over there, we are who we are. Everything is black and white – only here in the lowlands do we have many shades of grey.

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