climb

Being above "Above the Clouds", or why this is not a movie 'mountaineers' will like


Above the clouds on Mount Pulag

Pepe Diokno’s “Above the Clouds” has it all wrong. In a pivotal scene where Andres (Ruru Madrid) scrambles to find a small boulder where his late parents had a photo during one of many outdoor jaunts the two had with their future son’s grandfather (Pepe Smith) many years ago, he is suddenly overcome by powerful emotions of grief and nostalgia. The boulder is one of many jagged outcroppings in a field dirtied by ignorance and apathy. The boulders themselves aren’t spared: each one is covered by names of people who’ve been there, a trait apparently carried on from habits developed by pre-historic hunter-gatherers. The particular boulder that tugged at Andy’s heartstrings is itself emblazoned with the memory of his parents’ young love. Later on, with the help of his grandfather, they push the boulder erect to reveal not just the name of Andy’s father, but that this piece of rock was meant to bear witness to everlasting feelings.


Above the clouds on Mount Halcon

The scene is wrong on so many levels, as it seems to glorify vandalism as a means of reminding the future that things took place in the past. The sweeping camera work on this field enveloped in fog reveals what is wrong with nature tourism in the country: that those who seek savage beauty and pristine surroundings have neither the common sense nor the foresight to want to keep things beautiful and pristine. People will be watching this movie and think: I must leave my mark somewhere, so that future generations, perhaps my children, or my children’s children, can return to that place and say: I was there.


Above the clouds on the Kibungan Mountain Range

To be fair, the movie is not a treatise on adventure tourism or the local outdoor industry. It dissects the relationship between two people who are related by blood, but who are strangers to each other. Whether we see this relationship transcend years of being apart is the important question. So it ignores what hikers, adventurers, and, alright, “mountaineers” who piled the Cultural Center of the Philippines for the annual (truncated) Cinemalaya expected. We were hoping to see our outdoor passions translated and painted in the broad strokes of the cinematic artform. But we witnessed none of that. There were many places familiar to us: the Lumiang Cave in Sagada, pine forests in Benguet, the Wawa Dam in Rizal, and the sea of clouds of the Mount Pulag grasslands. Andy and his grandfather go on this hike in an effort to rekindle memories or perhaps create a relationship. The movie wasn’t meant to be a clarion call for people to take up hiking as a hobby. It was not meant to symbolize the local mountaineering community’s collective feelings about why they go outside. Quite frankly, despite generous sweeps of beautiful views and enchanting forests, the movie does little to encourage it. In fact, the mountaineering community may be offended by it: the grandfather litters the same trails he’s taken “a thousand times”, and seems to symbolize all that we don’t want to see when we are outdoors.


Among the pines on the Akiki Trail

The boulder is important to Andy as he retraces the trails taken by his father, and later, by his parents. The vandalism is glamorized as he turns the boulder into a shrine, picks up all the trash around it, and arranges it in such a way that others who may come upon it would remember that they were there. Vandalism has long been abandoned as an acceptable act of recording history. Andy should have been happy with the photo. His parents should have been content having Pepe Smith’s character remember the scene through that photograph. The movie romanticizes vandalism, which is unacceptable behavior particularly where the outdoors are concerned.


The Wall of Shame on the Tarak Ridge Trail

Just last weekend, I went to the Mariveles Mountains. The last time I was there was in 2011, and I was surprised to find that Nanay Cording’s “Wall of Shame” has expanded in size. The wall is a collection of tarpaulin banners left behind by outdoor groups with odd names that sometimes belie their true intentions. It is an ugly sight, and it makes me sad, because it has now become a conspicuous landmark of the Tarak Ridge hike, appearing on social media almost as often as the Papaya River. But a quick survey of the banners left there to rot results in this conclusion: none of the more respectable outdoor clubs I know has left any trace of their visit to Mariveles: not AMCI, not the UP Mountaineers, not the Loyola Mountaineers, not Sierra. Because we know that we need not leave behind our names on rocks, on trees, on walls of dishonor, to inform others that we have been there. Our photographs, our footprints, our memories are sufficient. And yes, I just paraphrased that cliché.
Re: Leave Nothing but Footprints
(Anonymous)
An argument was started in Cinephiles Facebook. I was asked what would be my treatment if the vandal part was removed and here's my answer as a scriptwriter myself ---

Vandals are hardest to remove especially if they were carved in stone. As what you said, a photo would be enough. They should've let the stone where it was and it's former state (facing down the soil). Grandfather and grandson will renovate the ancestral home to remove the clutter (the house, with so much clutter, would suffice to symbolise the father's generations of destruction, opening a coffin is not anymore necessary), they will buy picture frames and assemble them all with their photos on a cabinet -- one of the frames will have the "vandal" and Ruru's parents' photos. I see this as a proper and transformative ending.

Re: Leave Nothing but Footprints
Your alternative ending actually addresses what I felt was lacking in the film: a sense of denouement. Although there were signs that the characters of Pepe Smith and Ruru Madrid had approached an acceptance of each other, with the grandfather calling his grandson Andy, and the grandson introducing himself as Andres, I think that the act of reaching the summit was empty in itself. Did they finally bridge the divide that resulted from years of separation? Are they less strangers to each other after the experience?

Thanks for sharing your views. I wrote the review from a very specific perspective: that of an outdoorsperson. Glad to see a different view on the matter.
Re: Leave Nothing but Footprints
(Anonymous)
You're welcome! After all, mountaineering is not all about reaching the top. It's all about we going home and bringing what we have learned in your journey to enrich your life and the people around you. Having a resolution at home would have had a great impact. As what another blogger mentioned (I forget the link, I am sorry), "their climb was aimless, only a show of grand cinematography from the top to add beauty to the film".

I hope Pepe Diokno and the entire prod team reads your blog as well as the comments. They have not grasped the true essence of mountaineering in their film.
Re: Leave Nothing but Footprints
(Anonymous)
*to enrich our lives