Example #3: That first date back in 2011? It happened not too long after Ozturk, with climbers Jimmy Chin and Conrad Anker, made a daring first ascent of the infamous Shark’s Fin, a route in the Garhwal Himalayas that had long bedeviled the world’s best alpinists. They spent 12 harrowing days and nights vertical on a 4,000-foot granite wall in subzero temperatures, during which Ozturk nearly suffered a stroke. The resulting documentary film, Meru, was shortlisted for the Academy Awards.
As a brief but important aside, it’s worth placing the Shark’s Fin and Hkakabo Razi in the context of Mount Everest, by far alpine climbing’s best-known ascent, if only to underscore what exactly Rees and Ozturk are up to. Three years ago, Everest was summited by 658 people during its two-month spring climbing window. The main criteria for climbers is to be in fair walking shape and to fork over $30,000 to $100,000 to an expedition company. It’s the Sherpas who set the ropes and take all of the risks on the Khumbu Icefall, as the 2015 Nepal earthquake made devastatingly clear — 16 climbers, all Sherpas, were killed by an avalanche, the worst tragedy in Everest’s history.
“That’s why blind people can summit Everest these days,” says Ozturk. “It’s just walking at a lower angle. All you have to do is clip into the ropes and take one step after another.”
If you want a view of Renan and Taylor’s world without the technical ascents and inclement weather, Ozturk’s paintings offer beautiful, colorful interpretations of the world’s highest mountains, including Ruth Gorge in Alaska and Meru in the Himalaya. See them all here.
Example #4: That Shark’s Fin ascent? It happened five months after Ozturk almost bought it while skiing in the Tetons — he caught an edge and flew off a cliff smack onto a rock. Cranial fracture, two broken vertebrae, a severed vertebral artery, the latter being perhaps the most serious, as the vertebral artery happens to host a major brainstem nexus, facilitating most of the super-important vital functions, like breathing. A rupture means clotting in the arterial wall, arrested blood-flow, possibly a stroke. On the Shark’s Fin, the vertebrae slivers still bouncing around in Ozturk’s neck transmogrified like an alien parasite. He nearly died. Again. But it passed. All this is in the movie.
Example #5: More recently, Ozturk wanted to make a film about the Syrian refugee crisis, in Syria. Rees put her foot down. The Shark’s Fin is one thing. Jabhat al-Nusra another.
“Renan said, ‘You shouldn’t keep me from doing this,’” Rees says. “And I’m like, ‘You’re right, but this is a really sensitive issue and I don’t know if you can go until you learn more.’ Deep down I’m saying to myself, ‘Please, don’t go to a war zone.’”
Their newest project, Ashes to Ashes, a documentary about lynching victims in the post-Civil War South, feels like a compromise. It’s the first non-adventure film either has made; it’s also, in a quietly disturbing way, their most serious work so far, capturing the story of Shirley Jackson Whitaker, an artist and organizer of a mass funeral in Springfield, Massachusetts for the 4,000 African-Americans who were shot, hung, burned, dismembered and tortured to death in the name of insane racial hatreds, most of whom never received a proper burial. It was Rees, egged on by Ozturk, who disentangled the narrative threads.
“Taylor took the lead on this film,” Ozturk says. “She did the interviews and moved things forward. I was just there to support her.”
Like the best kinds of stories, all three films — Meru, Down to Nothing, and Ashes to Ashes — manage to both frame our world in miniature and enlarge it. They grapple with big events (the psychological fusillade of alpine climbing, our wretched national inheritance) and manage to wrench from them something primal and intimate. They feel like an awakening of sorts, an un-wedging of the puzzles of human bonds, a bandage-rip on all the insensate ramparts we build up around us in the course of our lives, which, in a flash, can splinter and come undone. In some ways, they’re love stories.