It seems the only thing that spurs me to write is the outrage of others. Lucky you.
I love “mountain” movies. I lived in the mountains. I looked at the mountains. I didn’t climb the mountains. But, give me a good mountain movie and I am all in. I’ve seen Jeremiah Johnson more times than I would ever admit in public. Hang with me and you’ll never need to watch; I can recount every scene and line of dialogue.
I love the story of a man and a mountain. Jeremiah held the title of Mia’s favorite movie for decades. Then Chai Vasarhelyi started making mountain movies and it was, “Jerawho?”
Elisabeth Chai Vasarhelyi has a gift for telling stories of men, their mountains and the woman that give them balance (for the love of all that is holy, please don’t come at me over women supporting their men. Just read the blog, dammit). Chai’s husband, Jimmy Chin, is a renowned photographer and cinematographer. Together, they are a reckoning.
The movie Meru rocked my world. In lesser hands, it would have been a one-dimensional climbing movie joining the pantheon of beautiful Nat Geo movies. Spectacular scenery with a few interesting facts about the people involved.
That’s not how Chai rolls. Chai reveals stories that haunt you. Her movies are layered and as surprising as life itself. Meru was nominated for an Academy Award in 2016, but did not win. Chai was back at it and this year with Free Solo, her documentary about Alex Honnold’s historic free climb of Yosemite’s El Capitan, did win.
That’s what busted social media.
I watched Free Solo win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. I watched Chai’s acceptance speech. I thought it was authentic and gracious. Yes, it was her speech. She’s the lead director. But, social media trolls were primed. Scathing comments about Chai being a narcissist appeared on her feeds, as well as that of her husband and Alex H and God knows where else. The Negative Nelsons didn’t think Chai paid a high enough tribute to the movie’s subject. She didn’t let her husband speak. She didn’t let Alex speak. She didn’t give Alex her award.
Let me be clear: Chai Vasarhelyi doesn’t need me to defend her honor anymore than the men that shared the stage with her. You can’t be a powder puff and accomplish what she has. She has been making award winning documentaries for a decade and a half. She had two movies nominated for Academy Awards back to back. No small feat. Both being climbing movies, she obviously has a clear vision of what she wants to convey and the grit to film in the conditions necessary to bring her vision to life.
So, here’s the deal. You know me. I’m not the gal standing in a crowd wearing a vagina hat. But, I’m going to call it:
I don’t believe there would be this much heat if Chai were a man.
I close my eyes and envision the speech given by a male director and believe there would be nary a ripple. No one would be screaming that the lead director should have let the co-directors speak. No one would be hollering that the director should have let his wife speak. There wouldn’t be any noise about the director not thanking the movie’s subject enough.
There would be crickets.
But, Chai is a woman and as crazy as it sounds, I think that’s the crux. Even though it’s 2019 and men are being emasculated at every turn (that’s a whole other blog) a woman is still somehow expected to fawn over and defer to the men in the room. Even though it’s 2019, Chai is expected to know her place…behind the men.
What those making the noise miss is what Chai does so well. What she brings forth through adept direction. Each of these mountain movies show the strong women “behind” the men that scale the heights and get the press. But, these women aren’t powder puffs either. These women are rock solid. They are neither meek nor weak. They hold their own and these movies honor their strength. The men may be the icing, but the women are the cake.
Chai’s direction is so light and nuanced that those screaming don’t even realize it is her talent that has connected them to the subjects they adore. Yes, these climbers have accomplished Herculean feats and we are in awe. But Chai exposes their chi. Her talent moves us past awe and into connection. She is why we care about who they are, not just what they do.
So, Chai girl, take it as a compliment. You are so good at what you do, people don’t even recognize you’re doing it. Their coming to the defense of all these able-bodied men means you did your job.
And that is why YOU won the award.