Last week on a trip to Dominican Republic, I discovered The Mountain (La montaña), an emotionally galvanizing, unheralded documentary feature about three young Dominican men on a quest to climb Mount Everest, by first-time filmmaker Tabare Blanchard. The Mountain world premiered last month at Austin’s Cine Las Americas Film Festival, after a private, work-in-progress screening last November at Dominican Global Film Festival.
The Dominican Republic produces very few indigenous films that travel abroad, and historically does not have a strong track record in the MIFF program. Outside of Jorge Ulla’s Guaguasi (the DR’s first-ever submission to the Academy Awards, which was actually a film set in Cuba and made by Cuban ex-pats), which we showed at our very first edition in 1984, MIFF’s major interest in Dominican film has been represented by the work of Laura Amelia Guzmán, who won our Knight Ibero-American Grand Prize in 2008 for Cochochi, and won another prize at MIFF in 2011 for her follow-up Jean Gentil (both films she made with her Mexican partner Israel Cárdenas).
But Blanchard’s film is the first I’ve seen of what may be a wave of new creative cinematic energy bubbling up in one of the Caribbean’s most joyous (and often complicated) cultures. A commercial and music video director by trade, Blanchard brings a sleek photographic sheen and an uptempo drive to the story. More than many Latin American documentary filmmakers, Blanchard understands an audience’s deep emotional identification with heroes, and it helps that Blanchard thinks of The Mountain neither as a documentary or even a film. The Mountain, his opening credits proclaim, “is history”.
In the early scenes of The Mountain, there’s some wry comedy around the three tropical natives contending with the harsh, freezing climate of Katmandu, and some dramatic procedural footage (including a harrowing flight to Lukal, Nepal) about the preparations for their climb. Then, in a clever transition, Blanchard whisks us back to the deep blue sea and sunny beaches of his homeland. In a self-aware, staged sequence, Blanchard finds three young Dominican teenagers surfing; learning of their compatriots’ expedition, and inspired, set off with backpacks to climb Pico Duarte, the highest mountain on Hispaniola.
From there, The Mountain
follows both the dramatic Everest climb and the more comic Pico Duarte ascent on story tracks that are not always clearly paralleled. Blanchard and his co-director and cameraman, Iván Herrera
, reveal through stages that for the Everest men, there is a deep test of character at stake; and for the Pico Duarte boys, there is an opening of the mind to dreams even beyond what can be found in a surfer’s sense of freedom. As the stories draw together in climax, there’s a surging moment of transcendence in the extroverted, boisterous emotion (that is purely, uniquely Dominican) of their mutual accomplishments, 9000 miles apart from each other.
Holding true to deeply authentic local pride and joy, Blanchard, Herrera and their protagonists create a universal emotional hook around an underdog-with-a-mission theme.