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From peak to peak: Documenting the world's most remote places

For her most recent documentary, Bainbridge Island filmmaker Liesl Clark trekked through remote Nepalese mountains, unearthing lost graves. The film is airing this weekend as part of the Bainbridge Island Film Festival.
Climbers uncover ancient bones in Liesl Clark's 'Cave People of the Himalaya.'

Climbers uncover ancient bones in Liesl Clark's 'Cave People of the Himalaya.' Celluloid Bainbridge Film Festival

Bainbridge filmmaker Liesl Clark’s life revolves around high altitudes. As a toddler growing up in Chile, where her father was an economic advisor to then-President ‪Eduardo Frei Montalva‬, Clark learned to speak Spanish as her first language and developed a love for the remote beauty of tall peaks.

After graduating from Harvard with a focus in writing, the wide-eyed liberal arts major found her way to Aspen, CO — simply because she “wanted to go and live in a place that was beautiful and that was close to the mountains,” Clark said. It wasn’t long before that decision paid off.

She landed a gig with ESPN in the small mountain town focused on documenting outdoor expeditions and wildlife. “I literally answered an ad in the newspaper,” she explains matter-of-factly. From there, her career took off. She gained experience writing about and filming in remote locations. In a sense, this became her news beat. Her profession has taken her on to PBS’s Nova as a web correspondent, where she covered the single greatest loss of life on Mt. Everest. Then on to the Alps to document snow melt atop Mont Blanc and now, to her latest project, Cave People of the Himalaya.

That documentary, which screens Oct. 20 as part of the Celluloid Bainbridge Film Festival, follows a group of archeologists and other scientists through mountain caves as they try to piece together the ancient remains of a mysterious group of people entombed inside the Kali Gandaki River Valley in Upper Mustang Nepal.

Clark found herself living in Washington by what else? A mountain. Her husband was hired by Alpine Ascents International to develop a guiding concession on Mt. Rainier. Clark, naturally, views this relocation as befitting of her other moves: “We came here because of Mt. Rainier.”

Now, back from the remote river valley high up in the Himalayas, Clark will kick off the the Bainbridge film festival Oct. 19th at the Kitsap Library, with fellow island filmmakers Bryan Gunnar Cole and Laurance Price. The trio will discuss the challenges — both legal and ethical — of filming remote civilizations.

Searching for ancient crypts buried inside mountain walls, as Clark did for Cave People, involves its own set of physical problems — namely climbing accidents, and there are a few in Cave People. But apart from broken bones, shooting a documentary within communities that rarely have contact with the outside world engenders confusion and concern over the artifacts at hand.

On a separate project, Secrets of Shangri-la, Clark and her team uncovered a library of Buddhists texts dating back 700 years. Loose pieces of paper were literally blowing out of the cave they were concealed in and birds began to do what birds do best: shit on things. Clark was eventually able to translate the writing from photographs taken and then place the scripts in the hands of a local monastery. But interupting the shooting process was a local youth group questioning the motives and the handling of antiquity. What followed was an ordeal over the text’s ownership. "No matter how much good will that we have, there are always moments of misunderstanding and questioning. These are valid concerns people have because once you become embedded in this project you become involved in the community.” 

But most concerning for Clark is the cross-culture dichotomy she sees in her films. “On one end I have the assignment of telling a story for producers,” she notes. “But by the same token I feel responsible for representing the locals on film, telling the story as clearly and truthfully as I can. To reduce them to just wallpaper is not truth telling [because] when we go to a location there is always a connection with the people.” It’s an inner turmoil many filmmakers wrestle with, that dilemma between profitability and accountability. “If you marginalize the local people in the story,” Clark adds, “you don’t feel the infrastructure.”


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