Boulder director’s documentary follows Isreali, Muslim friends who set new climbing route in Jordan

Boulder’s Henna Taylor, whose “The Valley of the Moon” will be featured at the Reel Rock traveling festival of climbing movies next week at the Oriental Theater, didn’t start out wanting to be a filmmaker.

Since she was a teenager, she has wanted to become a midwife, and in her 20s she spent three months in Cambodia studying midwives there. That began her roundabout route to documentary filmmaking.

“I brought a super old Mac Book with iMovie on it and a camcorder and decided I would document my time there (visually) instead of writing about it because I’m a little dyslexic,” said Taylor, 32. “I fell in love with the documentary part.”

Her documentary debut, one of four films being shown on the Reel Rock tour, is the story of two Israeli climbers developing a new route on a mountain in Jordan’s Wadi Rum national park, along with Boulder climber Madaleine Sorkin, who is Taylor’s partner. The team was supported by a local Bedouin guide, Mohammad Hussein, a Muslim who has had a long friendship with one of the Israeli climbers, Elad Omer. The other Israeli, Eli Nissan, lives in Boulder.

Taylor dropped out of Fairview High School in Boulder after her sophomore year, got a GED and moved to Canada.

“I was getting straight As and I couldn’t remember what I had learned,” Taylor said of her reasons for quitting high school halfway through. “It wasn’t trying to get away from school; it just at the time felt like a waste of my time. I actually dropped out for a love of learning, I think. When you drop out of school and move to a different country, that’s like the most learning you can do. You’re fully engaged and fully awake and fully terrified. That was really exciting.”

She spent five years living on Vancouver Island, working as an Outward Bound instructor and a sea kayak guide before moving back to Boulder. Last summer, Taylor spoke with The Denver Post about “The Valley of the Moon.”

Q. So how did this movie come about?

A. The marriage between rock climbing and filmmaking makes sense technically. I’ve been climbing since I was 9. I knew how to make films and I could handle myself in vertical spaces. Madaleine is a pro climber. She and Eli were talking at our house one day and Eli said, “Please come to Wadi Rum.”  I had to figure out a reason for me to go — Madaleine was going because she is a pro climber and that’s her job, but I wondered, “How can I get there as a filmmaker?” I pitched the story and the trip to one of her sponsors, Outdoor Research. They jumped on board, we bought plane tickets and that was that.

Q. Wadi Rum has been used in movies whose settings are supposed to look like Mars, most recently “The Martian” with Matt Damon. Is it a little like Moab?

A. On steroids. It’s this red desert with dunes and huge red sandstone cliffs.

Q. Your movie shows the climbers making a new route up a 1,800-foot rock wall, but it’s also about the relationship of two Israelis and a Muslim, being friends and doing cool things together in the Middle East. How did their friendship come about?

A. Mohammad was about 16 when he met Elad, about 18 years ago. He was working with tourists. Hopefully it shows in the movie that they are like brothers, they love each other so much. Every time Elad goes to Wadi Rum, he stays with Mohammad.

In a lot of ways, Mohammad also gave them “permission,” and that’s a big part of this I really want to get across in the film. A lot of times you see adventure films, the white people going into the brown people’s space, building stuff and calling it amazing. You’re not really sure how the locals feel about that. In this case, the locals love it, or the majority of them. Their whole economy is based on tourism, and tourism right now is declining. They are in Jordan, which is the middle of the Middle East. It totally is an oasis, a peace buffer, and it is peaceful. As a woman, I would feel completely comfortable to walk out into the desert alone for hours. I feel more safe walking in the Wadi Rum desert than I do on a logging road in Colorado.

Q. What about the political overtones?

A. Often when I show this film about Jordan, people bring up the conflict of Palestine and Israel. I don’t really know how to respond to that because I’m showing a film about Jordan, not Palestine and Israel. There is no commentary about the conflict in this film. I don’t want to go there. That said, these are Israelis in an Arab land, and that is political even though this film is not political. Nothing about the relationship between Eli, Elad and Mohammad is sensational or politicized.

I am offering the observation that if you put an Israeli and an Arab-looking person together as friends and if we see that as political, that means we’re in a really bad place politically. Seeing a film in the Middle East that is 100 percent positive with this coming together of Americans and Israelis and Bedouin Muslims as OK — it’s not even amazing, it’s just OK, like any other climbing trip would be. That was the point. The Middle East is a big place. There is war in the Middle East and there are really scary people in the Middle East (but) there is no war in some places and there are wonderful people in the Middle East. I tried to communicate how Eli, Elad, Mohammad and Madaleine feel about it without telling the audience how to feel about it.

Q. That’s interesting, because it seems like most documentaries today don’t take neutral approaches. They are polemics from one side or the other.

A. You can’t make a film without bias, but there have been a few documentaries I have seen that did come at it neutrally and I felt so grateful. I agree, it doesn’t happen often. It does happen sometimes, though, documentaries that are made from a place of curiosity rather than a place of trying to convince you of something.

If you go
What: Reel Rock 13
When: Nov. 15-16, showings at 6 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Where: The Oriental Theater
Tickets: $20

In addition to Henna Taylor’s “The Valley of the Moon,” Reel Rock 13 includes:

“Queen Maud Land,” in which six elite climbers tackle frozen rock towers in Antarctica
“Up to Speed,” a feature on speed climbing, which will be featured for the first time at the Olympics in 2020.
“Age of Ondra,” a feature on Czech climber Adam Ondra.

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