Shaping Story: Director Chai Vasarhelyi on Sharing the Story of Meru in Cuba
When Jimmy and I were making our high altitude Himalayan climbing documentary Meru, we barely thought anyone outside of our small circle of family and friends would see it, let alone that it would play around the world. It never occurred to me that I would get to bring it to an audience in Cuba.
So when Sundance Film Forward called to invite me to do that, I jumped. The ensuing four days in Havana were an action packed exercise in real life cultural diplomacy. Our trip was surrounded by plenty of incident, not least of which was inclement flash flooding and a national electricity shortage. These things put the Meru screening in jeopardy, but the show must go on. And despite a late start, a handful of Cuban film enthusiasts and mountaineers came to the Cine Infanta to watch.
By far the highlight of the trip was a master class I had the privilege of teaching with Jesse Andrews. Jesse wrote the young adult novel Me and Earl and the Dying Girl which he then turned into a screenplay which was then turned into a great movie that won the Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance 2015. (Meru won the Documentary Audience Award that same year).
It's not often that non-fiction and narrative filmmakers get to speak about the moviemaking process side by side with each other. A member of the audience asked us each to discuss a scene that didn’t make it into our films. This triggered a discussion about the moments that were left behind: either on the cutting room floor or perhaps never shot at all.
It was interesting to think about both of these categories in light of where fiction and non-fiction intersect, and also in light of where they miss each other completely. Jesse spoke about scenes he wrote that were never shot and about directorial decisions that shaped the ultimate character development in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. But these were made through artistic vision and choice.
I talked about two moments that I would have loved to include in Meru that I am aware transpired on the mountain but were never shot. They couldn’t be captured given the extreme conditions of the climbing, let alone climbing and filming at the same time. And they couldn’t be recreated, because, well, you just can’t do that. So we had to build our artistic vision for our documentary around choices that had been made for us. This can be part of the limitation of non-fiction filmmaking: what you don’t have, you don’t have. There’s no going back.
It’s now been over a year and half since we edited Meru. It surprised me how emotional it still is to think about those precious scenes that we left behind and how if it wasn’t for the unexpected question from an interested audience member, those stories would be lost. It also made me think about how our decisions as to what to include and what to omit from these stories we tell shape a completely new story.
I found it especially poignant to think about these questions within the context of Cuba and the cultural and creative reckoning we heard so much about from our Cuban counterparts. It is indeed questions of storytelling and history that they are struggling with in the stories they are trying to tell right now.