Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ’00, an award-winning filmmaker, recently won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature on Sunday, Feb. 24. She, with her husband, Jimmy Chin, received the award for Free Solo, which followed the journey of Alex Honnold as he climbed El Capitan — a 900-meter rock face in Yosemite National Park — without any ropes.
At the University, Chai Vasarhelyi majored in Comparative Literature and served as a cultural editor for The Nassau Weekly.
On Thursday, Feb. 28, she spoke with The Daily Princetonian in a phone interview. Below is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.
The Daily Princetonian: Can you talk a little bit about your experience as a Comparative Literature major at Princeton and how you made the leap into documentary filmmaking? What made you interested in documentary filmmaking in particular?
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi: I was interested in narrative of displacement and genocide because both sides of my family had fled their home countries of Hungary and China for either religion or political persecution or ideological persecution. The idea that both my parents had fled their particular countries because of this idea of not adhering to a norm, and then here they have biracial kids, is very interesting to me. I felt like representation of it, like how do [you] historicize it, how do you write about it, is how you remember it in the future ... Richard Holbrooke [a diplomat who helped negotiate the end to the Bosnian War] came to speak at Princeton the same night as the bombings of Kosovo began … But he would not take any of our questions about Kosovo. I looked at another student Hugo Berkeley [’99] who was actually the cultural editor of the ‘Prince,’ and we decided to go to Kosovo to find out for ourselves what was happening. How could genocide be happening in the middle of Europe in 1999?
That led to my first film “A Normal Life,” which chronicled the lives of six people, some of whom were journalists for the only Albanian independent newspaper in Kosovo, and they got their access because they worked during the day as translators for The Washington Post, The New York Times, ABC News, The New Yorker ... There was this public opinion that the people in Kosovo were these “babushkas,” these peasants who were illiterate, and that was absolutely not the case. “A Normal Life” really chronicled what it was like waiting for war and then what happened after it finally arrived ... We followed them for four years, and it kind of just launched me into making nonfiction films. The film, when it finally premiered in 2003, was supported by Princeton.
Comp Lit let me write kind of a theoretical thesis about these ideas and also submit a 35-minute film. Then that film became a feature length film that won the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003. That’s how I started, and I really credit the support of Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood, who are still at Princeton, in allowing me to find my own way and to explore ideas in a different type of way. There wasn’t a film major at the time, I wasn’t a film production major, I was a Comp Lit major using the idea of the language of film, the language of philosophy, of narrative, as well as these foreign languages I studied.
DP: Your documentaries have covered subjects from youth in Kosovo during the Bosnian war in “A Normal Life” (2003) to the annual Grand Magal Mouride pilgrimage in “Touba” (2015) to the first man to free solo climb El Capitan in “Free Solo” (2018). How do you decide on your subjects and the stories you want to tell?
ECV: To make a documentary film you have to feel incredibly passionate about the subject. And for me it also has to make the world a little bit better. It’s got to be highlighting a point of view that is seldom paid attention to. It has to somehow advance an idea. In the case of “Touba,” it’s this incredibly peaceful form of Islam. It showcased this incredibly moving Sufi pilgrimage that transpires every year in Senegal, and the basis of the Sufi brotherhood is essentially one of peaceful, nonviolent resistance to the colonial powers that colonized Senegal.
It was in the post-9/11 world where you saw these images of Islam that were violent and just a particular form of Islam and not universal, that I felt it was important to make films like “Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love,” which is probably my most widely seen of that series of films. And then I made “Touba” and then “Incorruptible,” which is about political corruption, which is kind of quite timely if you look at it now, this idea of the abuse of power … Then with “Meru” and now with “Free Solo” … I was moved by the personal story of the kid [Alex Honnold] who found it less scary to go out and climb without a rope than to speak to another person and ask him to be his partner so he could climb with a rope ...
[The] idea of a vision and discipline and working really really hard to achieve your dream, he makes ... the impossible possible. That was very inspiring to me and also felt like every teenage kid can identify with this guy. Especially in these broken times, it felt like we could all use and find inspiration in his courage to have courage and trust. He may have free soloed El Cap, but we all have a free solo in our lives. Be it to make change, be it to run a marathon, be it to ask someone to marry you, there are many different ways to make life that play that’s scary and right. We were just very inspired by it.
DP: In your Oscars speech for “Free Solo,” you thanked National Geographic for “hiring women and people of color, because we only make the films better.” What do you think your win signifies for underrepresented groups in the film industry moving forward?
ECV: I just think it’s our job to practice best practices. It’s the least we can do. And I do that in all of my work … be it hiring different types of voices to work with us, because honestly a different type of voice coming from a different demographic with different sexual orientation makes the work more interesting. I studied under Mike Nichols for a year, and his whole thing was that everyone should give their opinion, from the driver to the head of the art department. He appreciated everyone’s points of view. And that’s always who I’ve been, but it’s also a very strong influence to be like we need to include as many voices in the work we do, because we live in a complex world, the world is getting smaller, people are getting more disconnected, so how do we connect?
Nat Geo took a great leap of faith buying this production. It was a film that we never knew how it was going to end, it had enormous risks, it was secret, and it was a big deal. It’s our responsibility to have best practices, be it hire as many women — we made a film that could be considered quite macho, but actually gives space to a female point of view, that was important to us. [For instance, in] our crew, we have gender parity on our post-production staff.
DP: A recurring point in “Free Solo” is the fear that by the very nature of having a film crew present, Alex Honnold was put in additional danger. How did you deal with that, both from a personal and professional standpoint?
ECV: My ultimate responsibility is to my subject, not necessarily to the studio that we’re making the film for. What happened in “Free Solo” is a more extreme case of an ethical question that’s at the heart of all nonfiction filmmaking. In nonfiction, you fundamentally do not know what’s going to happen next, anything can happen. For us, the existential heart of this film was an ethical dilemma about is Alex going to fall because we’re filming ... But first what it came down to was do we believe in Alex, do we trust his decision making? Yes, I trust Alex absolutely in his decision making … Do we trust in our own selves to treat our subject with respect no matter what happens? The answer is yes.
There were many ways to make this film and it could have been super sensationalized. But I knew that Jimmy, and I would treat with respect always. Then [there was] the last question, do you really want to do it? Alex has thought more about his own mortality than anyone else I know. He’s thought about it deeply, and he has chosen to live this life. He does not want to die — life is worth living to him … his idea of a life of intention was something incredibly important to us, where we thought it was important for everyone to hear and think about that question.
That said, we created some guidelines to mitigate the risks, and Jimmy, my directing partner, has been a professional climber of 20 years. He knows what Alex feels … and how to assess risks in film in climbing situations. We just decided we could never interrupt. The needs of the production could never trump those of Alex, so we could never ask him “are you going to climb today, are you going to free solo today?” We could never ask him, that would be putting pressure on him ... Likewise we had to insulate how we were feeling, we couldn’t freak out at Alex. He should not feel what we were feeling, because we’re committing to him and his dream … but we don’t need to add to his pressure.
But had [a fall] happened, it would have probably been the same film. It’s not like we would have redone it to be like look how horrible and dangerous this thing is. We believed in him. And we probably made it safer. As you see in the film, he realized there were people watching, he practiced harder, and for this guy who always free soloed by himself, for greatest free solo experience of his life, he has his best friends standing right next to him, saying you don’t really need to do this for us, we love you, which was like a revolution for Alex. There is an emotional evolution that transpired that no one could have anticipated.
DP: What’s next for you? Is there a project you are particularly excited about?
ECV: Yes, currently we’ve been making a film about Kristine Tompkins. Kris Tompkins and her late husband Doug Tompkins, Tompkins Conservation, and Yvon Chouinard.
Kris Tompkins became the first CEO of Patagonia. She was hired by Yvon Chouinard [founder of Patagonia] at 15 years old to be an assistant packer and eventually rose to the first CEO of Patagonia. [Chouinard’s] best friend Doug Tompkins founded The North Face and Esprit, and they [Kris and Doug Tompkins] ran away together to save the world. It’s the ultimate conservation story … It’s this incredible love story but at the heart of it is about actually putting in life service of the planet, because time is running out.
She is an incredible female role model and the story hasn’t been told because they’re really really private people. Doug died tragically four years ago, Yvon is 80, Kris is 70, so they really want the story to be told and we’re really close to them, so it’s been very scary to commit because there is so much pressure, but we’re ready and this story must be told, so that’s our next step.
DP: What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers at Princeton?
ECV: My advice is that the liberal arts education is everything. I always come back to my “Iliad” and my “Odyssey,” and I come back to those narratives and lessons I learned at Princeton every day. Dante is part of my dialogue now as a filmmaker. Princeton is such a special place to learn, and you don’t need to be specializing for the rest of your life.
I got the education I needed at Princeton without going to a film program. In terms of filmmakers in general, I would say that you really have to believe in what you’re doing, because who knows how many films you are going to make in your life, you’ve got to make them count. And in terms of female filmmakers, I’m a proud mother of two kids, and I think it’s hard, but you can do both.