An Interview with Allison Otto: Adventure Documentary Filmmaker

Published on 02/27/2013

by Arya Roerig

Earlier this month, we shared the new trailer for the documentary Keeper of the Mountains about Miss. Elizabeth Hawley and her amazing and extensive records of climbing in the Himalayas. The documentary will be on the 2013 film festival circuit and a special sneak peek excerpt and discussion of the film is set to be held at the American Alpine Club’s annual dinner and Everest Anniversary Festival weekend Feb. 22-23. We recently had the opportunity to speak with the film’s mastermind, Allison Otto, about what inspired the award-winning documentary and short form filmmaker to chronicle the life and times of history’s foremost mountain documentarian.

Q: What motivated you to tell Miss Hawley’s story?

A: I became fascinated by Elizabeth Hawley after reading a profile of her in the March 2011 issue of "Outside" magazine. The article was titled: "The High Priestess of Posterity." The subhead was: "It doesn't matter if you're Reinhold Messner or Ed Viesturs: your summit never happened unless Elizabeth Hawley says it did." The article featured a black and white portrait of a fragile-looking woman in vintage librarian glasses surrounded by books and filing cabinets.

She'd never climbed a Himalayan peak (and had no desire to do so), but had somehow become the world's authority on mountaineering in the Himalayas. She stood maybe 5'2 (on a good day) but made some of the world's most formidable mountaineers quake in their boots with her post-expedition interrogations, which they fondly dubbed "the second summit." And since 1960 she'd lived alone in Kathmandu, defying the gender expectations of her day, famously living on her own terms, reporting for Reuters, and maintaining an ever-growing archive of mountaineering expeditions--an archive now considered invaluable to the history of mountaineering.

I contacted the American Alpine Club and Elizabeth Hawley's Colorado-based relatives, and soon reached out to Elizabeth Hawley to see if she'd be willing to let me create a short documentary portrait that addressed her independence, her career, and her personal life. She emailed me back that she was up for it and during the summers of 2011 and 2012 I traveled to Kathmandu and filmed her, now 89, as she interviewed climbers, managed the archives, and reflected on her past and her future.

During the winters I scoured through a treasure trove of old letters, photographs, documents, and postcards kept by Miss Hawley's mother and later passed on to her Colorado relatives. Many of these personal items are featured in the film and comprise their own personal family archive. I wanted to include them to play off the professional documents of the mountaineering archives. These personal letters and photographs also highlight the close relationship between Miss Hawley and her mother, who helped shape her daughter's independence and who ultimately spent the last year of her life in Kathmandu with her daughter.

My goal was to create an impressionistic portrait of a complex, independent woman who defied the pressures of gender stereotypes and is still trying to maintain her treasured archives despite advancing age.

Q: What was the most interesting part of meeting Elizabeth Hawley?

A: There is a lot about Elizabeth Hawley that's intriguing. But I was most interested in how she'd found a niche for herself halfway around the world and how she bucked the gender expectations of her day and has lived such a full, adventurous life on her own terms. I was also overwhelmed when I saw her archives and the sheer size and meticulousness of them. And of course, I was also looking forward to filming her meeting with climbers and grilling them on their expeditions.

Q: How detailed do her accounts get?

A: She has an extremely detailed memory. Her mind is literally like its own ordered archive of all her adventures, the people she's known, the experiences she's had, the expeditions she's recorded. Her accounts are very detailed--everything from the minutiae of a decades-old expedition to the wild parties in 1960's Kathmandu. 

Q: Did you get to ride in her famous blue car?

A: Yes! I accompanied her to meet climbers at their various hotels and we rode along in her car. She sat in front with her driver and I sat in back and filmed with all my gear next to me. That car is iconic in Kathmandu and in beautiful condition. She got it in 1965, but it's actually a 1963 model. I was shocked that it's still running!

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