In new film, legendary climber Alex Lowe’s son reckons with his death
Max Lowe’s ‘Torn’ screens Monday at Aspen Film Academy Screenings
What: ‘Torn’ at Aspen Film Academy Screenings
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Monday, Dec. 13, 5 p.m.
How much: $25
Tickets: Wheeler box office; aspenshowtix.com
Max Lowe was 10 years old when his dad, the superstar mountaineer Alex Lowe, died in an avalanche on an expedition in Tibet in October 1999.
Alex’s best friend and climbing partner, Conrad Anker, went on to marry Alex’s widow and raise Max and his two brothers sons. Now a filmmaker, Max used his camera as a therapeutic tool for himself and the family, attempting to reckon with the trauma of their loss in intimate interviews and by digging through Alex’s archives at their Bozeman home.
The result is “Torn,” a revelatory and radically intimate documentary that will screen Monday at Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings. Produced by National Geographic, the film has been touring it across the U.S. since the Telluride Film Festival and recently had its theatrical premiere in New York.
The Lowes and Anker were finally able to recover Alex’s remains from the avalanche site on Shishapangma in 2016. But the process didn’t provide closure, Max Lowe recalled in a recent video interview. Instead, it had the opposite effect and led him to work through his trauma with his family on film.
“If anything, it opened the door for me,” Lowe said. “That’s what made making ‘Torn’ even fathomable for me. If that had not happened, I probably never would have delved into any of this stuff in my life. It’s been a wild journey, working through all of it in this way.”
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Lowe looked to documentaries like Sarah Polley’s “Stories We Tell” and Bing Liu’s “Minding the Gap” as his cinematic polestars, tossing out the idea of objectivity and instead placing viewers in his perspective as he tells his story.
“I was inspired by other filmmakers who had taken that leap in vulnerability and put themselves within the stories they’re telling in this way,” Lowe said.
The camera and the interview process created a space for he and his mom and Anker and his brothers to talk in a way they never had before, he found.
“It’s movie magic,” Lowe laughed. “You have this greater purpose. … When you’re sitting down to tell a story, and place yourself in it, it gives you this allowance to be vulnerable.”
Anker clearly wanted to use the filmmaking process to open up and attempt to heal his fraught relationship with Max. “Torn” shows him sitting for his first interview with Max, closing his eyes and taking a long deep breath. He then opens his eyes and says “Let’s do this!”
“Honestly, I was most concerned about his interview,” Lowe said. “I didn’t know if he would open up. Because that’s not really his character. To have him be brave enough and love me enough to sit down and open up in the way that he did was really special.”
With wide acclaim on the festival circuit, “Torn” is beginning to reach mainstream audiences. It’s crossing over from the mountain film subculture centered around Telluride Mountainfilm, Banff Mountain Film Festival — where “Torn” won the Best Feature prize — 5Point Film and the like, following the door-opening footsteps of Jimmy Chin’s Academy Award-winning “Free Solo.”
“I made this film with the hope that it would reach a larger audience of folks and people who don’t know anything about climbing but do know something about family and loss,” Lowe said. “I think anyone who has experienced any sort of loss can relate to our story in a way. And it’s been pretty powerful to hear the feedback.”
At a Manhattan screening the night before our interview, Lowe said he had several people come up and tell him their own stories of losing family members and friends. That was a sign to him that the movie is hitting the mark he hoped it would.
“It’s rooted in climbing, because that’s the world that my family is in,” Lowe said. “But for me, it’s more a story about family and how we move through life and come up against these big painful things together and move through them.”
Now facing the public and the media and sharing the film with a global audience is still part of the healing process, which remains unfinished.
“I just keep telling myself, I can’t question the process,” he said.
Lowe has made shorts and worked on the commercial side of outdoors filmmaking, but “Torn” is his first feature-length film. It’s likely to create opportunities for him to do more. He’s uncertain of what his next project might be, but he thinks he knows what it won’t be after the soul-baring experience of “Torn.”
“It’d be nice not to tell a story about my own life,” he said.