On February 24th, Ivy alumna and award-winning filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Elizabeth accepted the award, alongside her husband and codirector Jimmy Chin, for Free Solo, a breathtaking documentary that follows rock-climber Alex Hannold on his quest to climb El Capitan—a 900-meter rock face in Yosemite National Park— without any ropes. She kindly agreed to an interview with fellow Ivy member and film enthusiast, Amanda Morrison ’19.
How did you develop an interest in documentary filmmaking and how did Princeton contribute to your budding passion?
I came to Princeton as a pre-med student but switched to comparative literature. Journalism was very appealing to me, and it was increasingly clear the role that political documentaries could play. The idea of representation was something I became very interested in, and capturing images seemed critical to this. My junior year I began making a film on the Kosovo War with a classmate named Hugo Berkeley. The Comparative Literature department graciously allowed me to include a twenty-minute film in my thesis on representation in text. That type of support—nurturing both creative and analytical thought—was very special.
What I learned at Princeton is still very present in my work. I still have my original copies of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Aeneid with my notes from Robert Fagles’ seminar; I still go back to those stories and forms. The classics are a very big creative influence on my work. If not comparative literature, I would have majored in classics. The only production class I ever took was with Su Friedrich, but when I wanted to direct a play, I received funding to put on a production in the Woody Woo fountain. Princeton is a very special place.
What do you look for when you’re starting a project, and what are your favorite stories to tell?
To make a film you have to be moved by the subject. Films take a long time. If you’re going to live and breathe something, and pledge yourself to honorable representation, you better care about it. My favorite types of stories to tell are those that move me, that make the world a little bit better, and that I feel uniquely positioned to look at it in a different way. I most respect my peers who create films that advance the genre, like the film The Act of Killing. I think Free Solo was a new visceral experience for the documentary film genre.
You’ve described your process as “backing up” into projects. Can you explain what that means?
Besides my first film, which I dove into head first, my approach to new projects has been one of “backing up into [them]” because I know the commitment and responsibility involved. The film Jimmy and I are working on now is about Kristine Tompkins and Tompkins Conservation. We have known Kristine and her late husband Doug for years; they are two of Jimmy’s most important mentors. After Meru (Vasarhelyi and Chin’s 2015 award-winning documentary), they approached us about making a film. At that time, I wasn’t ready for the responsibility and uncertainty of telling their story. But now it feels like an urgent story: Kris is 70, Doug passed away three years ago, and our world is crumbling beneath us. We need to find an emotional and entertaining way to care about conservation. Making this film now about the greatest conservationists of our time is a responsibility I feel I must carry out.
After graduation, your films took you from Kosovo to West Africa. How did your projects connect and evolve over these early years?
The most defining event for the majority of my career was 9/11. I was class of 2000. My best friend from grade school through high school to Princeton and Ivy was Cat MacRae (Ivy ’00), and she died in 9/11 working in the Twin Towers. I had been working in a war zone in Kosovo, and it didn’t make sense to me. For my whole generation, something changed quite profoundly. Fear was brokered and manipulated. My focus shifted from conflict in Kosovo to images of Islam and fundamentalism on the news. Representations of Africa were dire.
The Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour had just composed an album celebrating nonviolent Islam. As I began making a film on how his music would affect the West, Youssou was accused of blasphemy in his home country. It turned into a totally different film. It took about five years to make and was definitely a young person’s film. I don’t know how I ever had enough energy to make this movie! My next film, Touba, continued exploration of Sufi Islam and nonviolent resistance to colonialism. I then left Africa. However, when the President of Senegal attempted to change the constitution to allow for a third term, and the country erupted in violence, I felt called to return and make a third film embedded in that community (Incorruptible, 2015).
You are soon directing a fiction heist film starring Jake Gyllenhaal. How do you feel about the transition from nonfiction to narrative?
I’m curious if playing with form will improve my effectiveness in telling the kinds of stories I’m interested in. I think nonfiction is really hard to do in an entertaining way. I’m excited to work with actors who can have emotional connections on command! I’m joking; I do think it’s going to be very difficult, but I’m excited for the challenge.
You say everyone has a “free solo.” What’s yours?
Alex’s free solo is an extraordinary human achievement that will never be replicated. But when I refer to other people’s “free solos,” I mean there are things we dream about and things that stand between us and our dreams: hard work, fear, baggage, etc. Most of my fear now revolves around my children—the kind of world they are going to live in—and my creativity, specifically how to continue making movies that move people. You have a finite number of films to make in your life, and they should be worthwhile. To “free solo” something means you relentlessly dedicate yourself, with diligence and determination, to pursuing a dream. I try to approach most things this way.