Rarely does a cinematic experience leave you with a sense of vertigo. The aptly titled documentary Beyond the Edge does just that as it recreates the arduous journey that culminated in the first ever conquest of Mount Everest by New Zealand mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepali sherpa Tenzing Norgay on May 29, 1953.
Just in case the stunning Himalayan landscape, with majestic peaks, bottomless crevasses, sheer cliffs and howling winds didn't look awesome, Kiwi director Leanne Pooley decided to film this in 3D. She explained this choice in an interview during the Toronto International Film Festival, where the film was premiered: "Very few of us are ever going to be in that world. I wanted to get people as close to that world as I could. Also, it's a film where everybody knows the ending. So you have to make sure the journey is what people remember."
3D, though, is just one aspect that makes this documentary spectacular, as it brings together archival footage and photographs of the expedition, voice interviews, CGI material and a reenactment of that ascent six decades ago. The last component, featuring actors playing Hillary and Norgay and other members of the expedition became necessary since there was no filming of the final stage of their assault upon the peak. As Pooley said, "The archive that we use finishes at the South Col because they couldn't shoot any higher up." The reenactment was done in New Zealand's Southern Alps, where the terrain is close to Everest's.
The Everest 3D cinematography was the work of Mark Whetu, an accomplished mountaineer, who climbed Everest for the seventh time and brought back the magnificent footage that elevates the film.
The 29,029 foot high Everest is a looming, cold, majestic and unforgiving character in the film. Beyond the Edge stays with the expedition from the beginning to the climax, as talking heads stay behind the camera. "I just wanted people to stay on the mountain. I also wanted it to feel like an adventure film rather than a documentary," Pooley said.
Beyond The Edge will open in New Zealand in late October. The filmmakers are keen on finding distribution in India, not least because Hillary had affection for the country and was once his country's High Commissioner to New Delhi, and Norgay made India his own, dying in the lap of the Himalayas, in Darjeeling.