By Alli Tolbert, Marketing & Communications Intern
Last Thursday I had the pleasure of speaking with Maria Fortiz-Morse, the director behind the award-winning documentary, “The Mountain Between Us.” The following interview highlights some of our conversation about the inspiration behind the film, the less-glamorous adventures in the field, and her recent last-minute trip to accept the Young Filmmakers Award at the Tegernsee Mountain Film Festival in Germany. Thank you, Maria!
What was your connection to Nepal prior to the creation of this film? Was there an experience that sparked your interest to produce this film?
I went trekking in Nepal when I was in college, and developed an interest in learning more about the mountain cultures of the Himalayan region. In 2005, I spent six months living with a Nepali family, taking classes in the language and conducting research on the lives of young women. During that time I made a personal commitment to go back to Nepal to work in the future.
Being in Nepal fundamentally changed my life. I realized how fortunate I am to be able to choose my life’s work. But I also came to reconsider what it means to be an empowered woman. The mountain women I met were very strong women — they possessed a quiet strength. The women are very proud of their children and their work to support them. I found something in their lives that resonated with me.
Can you tell me a bit about the selection process for the film?
First, teachers from nearby villages selected about 10 girls who they thought would be good candidates to apply for a spot at the Salleri Girls Hostel. They came to the hostel construction site – which you see in the film – and we all had a ‘sleep-over’ in the dormitories and lots of discussions about their lives. There was a translator present who helped me to understand the nuances of each girl’s life story. I then screen-tested the girls. This helped me to get a sense of how they looked on camera. Whoever you work with [on camera], they have to have a sense of humor, too.
I took many factors into consideration, and it came down to who I thought would have the most compelling screen presence for a wide-ranging audience. Junu Tamang, especially, had an authenticity that was compelling. When I was shooting, she quickly forgot about the camera and opened up about her life in ways that I could not have imagined.
What were some unique challenges you ran into while filming?
In Nepal, I estimated that I needed at least four weeks to shoot the footage that would have otherwise taken about a week to shoot in the field in the United States. A lot of the planning and coordination in Nepal had to happen on location because we did not have the luxury of using a professional “fixer”. That being said, with the luxury of time on our side, villagers were eager to help out because they knew how important the film could be for raising awareness about girls education. It was very humbling and also inspiring to have the support of local communities.
As a cinematographer, the one of the greatest logistical challenges was lighting. It was monsoon season and the weather was unpredictable — very wet and cloudy then sunny. Also, the girls had so many chores to do — and many of those had to be done quickly because of the weather. Chores couldn’t be postponed, and they took precedence over the shoot — like milking the cows or putting the animals to pasture. Ideally, I like to shoot when the light is almost perfect — and when people are relaxed and really enjoying the process. Luckily, we were able to shoot the same scenes over several days when the light and the mood were just right. The girls would wear the same outfits as they day before to preserve the continuity of the scene – so that it looked like the same day and time.
Another interesting problem was electricity. We carried a 45 pound solar panel from village to village — and someone was always assigned the task to making sure that it was following the angle of the nearest sunbeam. And it takes a long time to charge a camera battery with a solar panel. So that also slowed down production sometimes.
At one point, there was a sudden surge in power that actually broke a fuse in a camera battery. I tried soldering the tiny components using hot coals and a piece of wire – but it was not surprising that that technique failed. So we contacted Karma, our local partner, who was able to find components back in Kathmandu after a 2-day search. And a pilot offered to transport the package to the nearest airport in the remote region where we were. From there, a porter walked another 2 days to deliver the package to the village where we were shooting.
I really felt indebted to the girls for taking time out of the busy schedules to shoot with us. For example, when we got to Junu’s home, she was busy chopping wood to sell so that she could afford to start school — which had already started. She said that sometimes there is no demand for the wood. If that were the case, she would have to wait for the demand to increase, or sell at a loss. She would have to transport 4 large loads of wood just to pay for her textbooks. That was over a weeks worth of work. The whole concept of reliability doesn’t exist, one must do whatever they can to earn money every day and it can take a long time. The lack of reliability limits what you can do. Junu was missing weeks of school in order to earn money in this way. It was really hard to watch.
Maria poses with award among fellowe Tegernsee Award Winners in Germany
What do you think about getting a last-minute flight to accept your “Young Film Maker’s Award” at the Tegernsee Mountain Film Festival in Germany? I imagine they were very excited about the film; do you have any particular comments from festivalgoers that stuck with you?
It was my first time attending a mountain-themed film festival. The audience was comprised of outdoor enthusiasts and international travelers — and they could really relate to the films in a way that I have rarely experienced elsewhere. The filmmakers were from all over the world. Some were world-class mountaineers who had both climbed and filmed some of the toughest ascents in the world. The films were shot in places ranging from the Swiss Alps to the Patagonia. It was also great to connect with audiences who deeply appreciate the hardships that the Nepali girls — and girls in the developing world — are experiencing. It was touching. I felt very honored to receive the award.
What did you love most about directing this film?
I loved working with the girls. The girls have a certain confidence in them; they know how important their work is to support their families — and they are also dedicated to their studies. Pairing this confidence with the opportunity of getting an education, how can you not have amazing results? It is really a testament to the opportunity we have to invest in girls’ education in the developing world.