ON THE GENESIS OF THE FILM:
The idea for the film came from Erik Weihenmayer the blind mountaineer and one of the main characters in the film. Erik was put in contact with film producer Sybil Robson Orr by producer Steven Haft. He thought this story would likely resonate with her because of her interest in Tibet and mountain climbing. (She met her husband Matthew climbing Kilimanjaro, the same mountain on which Erik got married.) It only took one meeting with Erik before she decided to make the film.
“Erik told me climbing mountains gave him confidence as a blind teenager and he wanted to share that experience with these blind Tibetan kids. He asked me if I thought taking 6 blind Tibetan teenagers up a 23,000-foot mountain in the Himalayas sounded like a movie. I told him it did and decided to make it,” says producer Robson-Orr. Sybil and Steven Haft had liked Lucy Walker’s ‘Devil’s Playground,’ the critically acclaimed documentary feature about Amish teenagers, and asked her if she’d be interested in directing this project. Lucy connected with the material personally, and thus the filmmaking unit was complete.
“Blind people in Tibet are really lacking in resources, support, understanding, medical care, and expectations, and even at the blind school it was hard to believe that Erik could have done something so immensely challenging” says Lucy Walker, director. “Sabriye herself knew that blind people can do anything they put their minds to, and Erik provided the perfect example for her to instil this in her students - once she had convinced them that it was true. Then they were so overjoyed that Sabriye wrote to Erik to tell him about it. When Erik received the letter he said he "felt like a coward" in comparison to what Sabriye had achieved, and resolved to visit - and then the idea for a climbing expedition was born, as we see in the film”.
ON INTERPRETING BLINDNESS CINEMATICALLY:
“I was always anxious not to use the cliché of a soft-focus lens to depict the vision of the blind people in the film who have some vision - because that is not what their vision looks like,” says director Lucy Walker. “They have all kinds of variations on image distortion, with dancing eyes, or being able to sense light only, all very specific, and I felt we should either go for it or not, but I didn’t want to use an inaccurate analogy like out-of-focus”.
ON THE PRODUCTION SCHEDULE AND LOCATIONS:
The production was divided into 2 shoots; the spring training in May 2004 involved a climb up a vertical rock face and a trek over a 16,000-foot pass beginning at Tsurpu Monastery. The second shoot from September to November 2004 involved traveling across the Tibetan plateau to all of the 6 kids’ villages, including a trip 1000 km away to southern China, by plane, and an additional 3 days by van to find Tashi’s family in Szechuan Province. The expedition up the 23,000-foot Lhakpa Ri was also shot in the fall.
ON THE CHALLENGES OF SHOOTING IN TIBET:
Producer Robson-Orr notes, “Shooting in Tibet presents a myriad of challenges. The most significant being that the Chinese authorities are extremely particular about what you shoot. If it is not listed on your shot list, approved in Beijing prior to your arrival, they won’t let you shoot it. You are assigned minders to make sure you don’t. At the same time, if you are shooting what you said you intended to, there is no problem. Fortunately, we only had the best of intentions and only a few hiccups.”
“When we were shooting in southern China, Szechuan police arrived and demanded we stop shooting at the very moment Tashi was being reunited with his father for the first time in 9 years. Tashi’s reunion was a major moment in our film, unfolding before our eyes, and it could never be recaptured. Fortunately, Petr Cikhart is very experienced in tense shooting conditions and was not fazed by the pressure. Ultimately, we did get shut down but not before we shot the first 10 golden minutes of the reunion. The police put us under a ‘house arrest’ of sorts back in our hotel in Luding. They seemed to be concerned we were shooting something political. Turns out the film permit we purchased from Beijing only applied to locations listed for Tibet, but not the ones in China. Fortunately, a senior official from the Tibet Autonomous Region called officials in Luding and told them everything was okay and they let us continue shooting the next day.”
ON SHOOTING AT ALTITUDE:
The biggest challenge at altitude is making sure the crew gets enough rest, proper food and most importantly, doesn’t get sick. In order to shoot the climbing team passing by, the crew had to run ahead of the climbers, set up, let them pass and then run up in front of them again, all the time carrying over 40 pounds of gear and all at altitudes ranging between 15,000 and 22,000 feet.
Concentration is hugely important and is one of the first things to slip when at altitude. Nightly production meetings were held to insure the team was getting the coverage necessary, recognizing there would never be a way to shoot everything, but always checking to make sure what they did have was quality.
ON THE IMPACT THE FILMMAKERS HOPE THE FILM WILL HAVE :
Lucy Walker, Director:
“ I hope that this film will be important and enjoyable for blind audiences. I hope that as many blind people as possible will be able to experience the film, and I am delighted that we have a state-of-the-art audio description track for blind audiences, and I hope that this may also encourage more cinemas to install the system.
I feel very privileged to have been able to have spent three months traveling in Tibet, and to have had this chance to get to know some of this unique place and its inspiring inhabitants and beautiful culture, and I am honoured to share that with audiences. In particular, the visits to the six students’ homes and villages are pretty unique, as far as I know, in terms of the access we gained to ordinary Tibetan homes and villages -- and attitudes. My goal is that people come out of the movie theatre and stay up talking all night about the rights and wrongs, and the pros and cons, and the East and West, and the blind and sighted, and the Tibet and China, and the Sabriye and Erik, and the falling on your face versus falling on your ass of it all…”
Sybil Robson-Orr, Producer:
“My hope is that Sabriye, Erik and the kids inspire our audience to push through their personal boundaries and reach for their dreams. Through them, we can see that anything in life, whether we are physically challenged or not, is possible if we build the right team around us. They don’t want to be seen as blind people who do great things, but rather ambassadors for everyone who believes in climbing higher.”
Steven Haft, Executive Producer:
” In a number of the films I’ve done, it really comes back to what touched me about the story from the start, this film for me asks the question, ‘what does it take for you to get off the sideline in life and engage yourself?’ I believe this is what Sabriye and Erik did, like when Sabriye started the school and Erik was so intrigued by the letter he had from the kids that he went to meet them to try and work with them. Every audience can relate to this film, in that they can question their own lives, and ask ‘what am I doing to step off the sideline?’ “