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Beyond the ridge

ELIZA KUBARSKA . Documentary filmmaker
Photo by David Kaszlikowski
© Vertical Vision Studio

Eliza Kubarska is a documentary filmmaker focused on human stories with environmental background, and climber, one of the few women in the world that climbs new routes on big wall (multi-pitch) mountain walls. Author of award winning feature documentaries such as: “What Happened on Pam Island” (aka “Mountain Love Story”) set in Greenland, and “Walking Under Water”, about the sea nomads in Borneo, winner of Hot Docs Special Jury Prize and and multi-awarded “K2. Touching the sky”. Graduate of Academy of Fine Arts (sculpture, video arts) and Wajda School of Film Directing in Warsaw (Poland), scholar of the Polish Ministry of Culture and Art, along with her husband, David Kaszlikowski, photographer, cameraman and author, she founded the Vertical Vision Studio, the perfect platform to live their shared passions: cinema, photography, climbing and the worlds discovering.
I discovered her works thanks to the awarded documentary film “K2 Touching the Sky” (2015), premiered at Locarno Film Festival (Switzerland) and featured in the program of Docs Barcelona. “K2- touching the sky” is an emotional film set against breathtaking views of Karakorum Mountains. It is a multilayered psychological portrait of four people who are coping to understand the choices of their parents or their own passion. Their parents and other alpinists from all over the world, met in the summer of 1986 at the Base Camp of K2, second highest summit on the planet. Their goal was to climb this extremely difficult rarely conquered 8-thousandmeter peak through its more difficult way. 13 of them died, their parents among them. Since then, that experience is known as the “black summer”. The film brings them together in the place of the tragedy, where their parents are buried or disappeared. At that time, they were just little children or, in some cases, their mothers were pregnant. They try to understand why their parents took a so high risk.
Eliza and David had a child at that time, so this film came too from a personal reflection due to their own passion for climbing. During the filming, she was allowed unique access to private letters, audio tapes and films of the protagonists, including Kurt Diemberger– a legend of alpinism, the only living person who climbed two 8-thousandmeter peaks as first man ever (in 1957 and 1960).
Cinema, nature, passion and above all his child, are the motor of her existence, which I tried to discover a little bit more in our interview.

You combine your passion for alpinism with documentary filmmaking. In fact, your latest film is titled K2.Touching the sky. Tell us how your passion for alpinism was born. How could you explain us that wish of touching the sky?

I was born in the communist Poland, where traveling abroad was almost impossible. I was always curious what is behind the corner or what is behind the next ridge. Climbing and art was my way to be free. Maybe the only way. In 1990, political situation changed and although I was quite poor,  finally I was able to move.

During your university years, you created some video-art projects. Why did you decide to focus on documentary filmmaking?

Two reasons. First. Very frankly,  I wanted to travel and climb. Becoming documentary filmmaker seemed to be a great idea connecting my dreams  with love for art. Second: I wanted to share my art with as many people as possible, so I did not want to limit myself to art galleries.  I had the feeling that cinema was much better space for me. Maybe I’m just too egocentric…

Is there any chance of viewing your artistic films?

Not currently, but I’m sharing a few stills from my video-arts. In 2004, I made a video called “Mom, Dad and Me” and in 2005 “The Cage” video-installation was my M.A. Diploma in the Warsaw Art Academy.

© Eliza Kubarska

© Eliza Kubarska

Your first documentary was the film What happened on Pam Island also known as Mountain love story released in 2010 about your journey with your husband David Kaszlikowski to the fjords of southern Greenland to reach the world's highest cliff and to kiss each other on it. What memories do you have about that journey and the filming?

The story began in 2007, 2 years after my graduation.  I was dreaming about documentary filmmaking but without essential  film production knowledge (they didn’t teach us too many practical things at fine art school) it was simply difficult.  With David we used to climb a lot at that time. I think we used to spent half of the year on the expeditions. David is a photographer with his own vision and he loves to explore. One day he told me about his Greenland expedition idea.  He said there are plenty of virgin mountains there. Beautiful wilderness . I loved his enthusiasm. The only problem was that the mountain he choose to climb is a sea-cliff, which rises straight  from the freezing sea. The only way, for us, to reach it was use of sea kayaks (motor boats are very expensive in Greenland). Initially we rented motor dinghy boat just to get us to the fjords . Then, dinghy left, and we stayed  alone almost for a month.  We set up our base camp on an uninhabited island, and from now on we’ve traveled- just 2 of us - on sea kayaks.  I wasn’t especially skillful kayaker and the water was close to 0 degrees. I was scared of capsizing and hypothermia. During the expedition, I was fascinated observing how our relationship is evolving. From traditional woman-man love relation to partnership focused on survival, where gender did not matter. I was filming our life on the island, on the huge wall and on the sea.  After return, I knew it was an interesting story for longer  film. So we returned to Greenland two years later, with cameraman Łukasz Gutt,  to finish filming. Material we had from the original expedition was very emotional but not long enough to tell the story. We needed additional footage: kayaking scenes, climbing scenes…  to complete the story. Film production process was long and hard for me. I did all mistakes I could make as an unexperienced filmmaker. In 2010 one hour film was finished. I was devastated and exhausted,  but fortunately  film received some awards - which was encouraging - and was screened at big international festivals, including Planet Doc, Camerimage, Banff  or Trento.

For further information it's interesting to visit our website verticalvision.pl

Do you have a spiritual vision of existence? What are the most important things in life for you?

While travelling I meet native people who have a strong bond with a nature. All my life I was missing, or rather dreaming about  real connection with nature. I think our civilization has helped us a lot in many ways but unfortunately we have to pay high price. Depression, which is omnipresent in modern society, is just one example of that. Right now, I think my vision or spiritual philosophy is closer to animists than to any other religion. If I need to describe a God, I would call him Nature. What is the most important? Today it is easy to answer the question. It’s my baby-boy. He is the most important in my life now. That’s what nature tells me. He needs to live and develop himself. Before he was born I thought that I need to leave my sign, my legacy on earth and I thought it would be my films or maybe the new climbing routes we have established with David.  But probably,  my child will be my most important legacy.

Three years later you released Walking Under Water, a wonderful story about the Badjao people who lived on the seas between Borneo, the Philippines and Indonesia and whose children learned to swim before they could walk. How did you learn about them and why did you decide to show their story to the world?

As I said, after the work on Greenlandic documentary I was tired and  honestly, bankrupt.  Suddenly we were offered an unusual job: travel video diary project for Sony Ericsson. Transforming our original 2 months assignment (and borrowing some money) we went to Asia and Australia for 6 months to film and to climb rocks. We also went to Borneo and met Badajo sea nomads.  On the sea, in the middle of nowhere we saw a little Badjao boy on a small boat, alone. This is what I thought. But he wasn’t alone, 20 meters below was his only companion, a compressor diver.  When I saw that man, I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was wearing a jersey, had wooden fins and was breathing through an old, broken in places, rubber  pipe! The 10 tears old boy task was watching their old, noisy compressor, and in fact was responsible for his father’s life.  He wasn’t Sari, my film protagonists, but when I was thinking later about the idea for the film I knew that I want to tell a story about a boy and his teacher, a Badjao diver, with amazing underwater skills.  Very soon I fell in love with the Badjao people. I discovered their tragic political situation. In order to show the contrast between the two worlds: the animistic world of Badjao and the modern tourist resorts, I decided to film in the Mabul Island.

What’s the opinion of the Badjao people about the film?

I went to Borneo last year, in 2016, to show the film in the Mabul Island. Sari, a boy, had already a moustache! The Badjao from the village were the only audience who could see the film in the original language, only they can speak Badjao!  We created an inpromptu ‘cinema’ in the middle of the  village, big white screen pulled from somebody’s bed ;-). I think the most of the people there had never seen any film before. And here they had a chance to watch themselves - like in the mirror. Lots of laughing and shouting. Very loud projection.  In the end, Sari told me that he liked it. Sadly, Alexan – his uncle and other protagonist -  wasn’t there. A few days before my arrival he was arrested together with 100 others Badjao inhabitants. The reason is always the same – he had no ID. I know that he returned home few months later, but the Badjao situation is uncertain.

And what’s your opinion about human respect to cultural diversity?

I’m terrified about nowadays situation in the world. It’s not only about globalization, disappearing cultures… I’m ashamed because of anti-refugee policy in my country, in Poland. I understand that situation is complicated but I cannot accept the hysterical reaction here. More of the Polish people who are against Muslim refugees never met any Muslim in their life before. Poland is unfortunately not the only country that has reacted this way. I’m worried about my child future, but I believe I can help him to understand the world as it is: multicolored, varied, culturally rich. I want to show him that there are many religions in the world, many different people who in fundamental issues are identical. He is only 2,5 now, but he has already visited more than a dozen countries!

You started a campaign to raise money to build a school for the youth of Mabul. How is it going?

Unfortunately, we did not manage to collect enough money to open a school on Mabul. The permit to open a school for Badajo children was even more difficult to obtain. I cooperated with PKPKM Sabah,  NGO which is running the schools for kids in the islands. I put them in contact with Polish NGO. The Polish NGO supported PKPKM with a sum of 10.000 USD. Without the permit they were not able to open a school on Mabul but thanks to that money, in 2015, nine school projects under PKPKM for more than 1500 Badjao children, were created.

K2. Touching the sky was released in 2015 and it follows the children of alpinists who died on K2 during their expedition to Karakorum mountains looking for answers. It is a deeply touching story that you felt very close because you were waiting then for a baby. Was it hard to convince them to participate? What did you learn from that experience?

I started this project just before my trip to Asia in 2010. But because of the film budget, which seemed almost impossible to reach, I decided to work on the Borneo story first. The main protagonist was my colleague from Warsaw.  Łukasz Wolf’s story was well known in Poland. His mother died in K2 when he was 4 years old, a few years later  his father died too, also in the mountains. Łukasz is an excellent climber. When I told him about my idea for the film he was happy to join the project. "I was always planning to go to the K2 base camp anyway", he told me. His mother’s grave is at  5300 m a.s.l, at the foot of the K2 mountain. Then, I found Hania, but - unlike Łukasz- she refused in the beginning.  But her mother told me to ask Hania again. Hania never met her father, she was born after his death on K2. I went to Amsterdam - where she was living at that time - to visit her. After one hour conversation she asked me if “the walk” to K2 base camp will be very hard and how she needed to train to be able to do it.  There were two people who refused. I understand them. I knew that emotional topic of the film can open a Pandora’s  box in people’s heads. However, from my experience, I knew it would only work in a positive way for them. When I was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts,as I told you before,  I made a video-art  “Mom, Dad and Me”. It was the story of my family, told from the child perspective. My parents divorced when I was a little girl. They never talked to each other again. Making this film was a kind of therapy for me. I asked my parents to pose naked in an embryo position. I filmed them. It took me three years to edit a 6 minutes film.  

The music of your documentaries is always composed by M.Jacaszek. What have you found in his music that connects so well with your spirit?

Jacaszek is an experimental composer, who goes exactly in the direction that is attractive for me. But I also like very much working with him because he is very open minded. It’s not easy to talk about music you would like to hear in your film, especially if you have limited music vocabulary. But for him it has never been a problem to talk with me and try to understand what I want to hear. He is also very talented. I like to work with a people who are more talented than me.   

What could you tell us about future projects?

Currently I work on two projects, both are filmed in Nepal. One is a story of a Sherpa family who breaks a taboo and climbs the most holy of mountains, in order to earn money for their son’s school. They follow and work for  western expedition of goal-driven and troubled misfits. Second one will be a mysterious story about Wanda Rutkiewicz, one of the most remarkable himalaists in the world: the first European woman on Everest (in 1978) and the first woman on K2. She is an icon as an independent, strong and beautiful woman, ruthlessly reaching for her goals, well ahead of her time. Wanda disappeared in 1992 in Himalayas. Her body was never found. A few years ago, someone have seen her in Tibetan monastery at the foot of Kanchenjunga…

That is an amazing story, like a dream come true. Could you tell us more about your own dreams ?

There are a few types of dreams. One is quite universal, about less conflicts and less pain in the world. One is very personal, about my family future. After my life experiences, I’ve learnt to appreciate what I have. There are also dreams about climbing and exploration, but being a mother I still don’t know how to deal with it. And dreams about my films: in my mind, I see Sherpas and the holy mountain story on a big screen.  I believe it’s another important story, about world exploration, which has never been told. I also think more and more about the Wanda Rutkiewicz ‘mystery’. I’m aware “mystery” aspect of her story may be pure fiction, nonetheless it touches an interesting issues:  dreams about changing identity, abandoning  our own lives to live as a different people. Is it about longer life , or maybe about new, possibly better choices… Have you ever thought about disappearing from the world?

Yes, I have, but it is true that our disappearance from the world is a kind of taboo in western society. What do you wish for your child?

I wish him to live in a world where nature will not completely disappear and where people will be able to talk and care about each other and accept their different cultures.

Photos and stills selection here

An interview by Juan Carlos Romero
All videos and photos by Eliza Kubarska and David Kaszlikowski
All rights reserved