“We may appear like humans but we don’t feel like humans” is a dialogue that sums up the plight of countless porters who carry equipment, in excess of 25 kilogrammes, to the base camp of one of the most dangerous mountainous terrains in the world — K2.
The lives of the porters and sherpas is the central theme of Iara Lee’s documentary titled K2 and the Invisible Footmen. Filmed over a span of about 45 days, the documentary chronicles the struggles of Pakistani porters and Nepali sherpas.
Set against the backdrop of the mountainous landscape, the film is intercut with the story of the first official attempt of an all-Pakistani team to reach the summit of K2 in 2014. While the months from May to August provide these porters with a stable income of Rs500 per day, the inhospitable climate throughout the rest of the year forces these individuals to take shelter in the basements of their cottages.
During an interactive session at the Pakistan American Cultural Centre (PACC), following the screening of the documentary, Lee spoke about why she decided to opt for such a topic. “More than anything, I wanted to highlight the struggles these individuals tend to face. Despite the fatal nature of their jobs, they still continue with it.”
Where the documentary offered a fresh look into the diverse cultural traditions of Pakistan, Lee discussed her experience working with the porters and sherpas. “They were very generous people that opened up their homes to us and let us record them,” she recalled.
The real obstacle, according to Lee’s partner-in-crime and cinematographer, Jawad Sharif, was shooting at such high altitude. “Recording interviews and treks at such high altitudes and terrains was not an easy task,” said Sharif.
“The entire process was so difficult and exhausting that Lee decided at one point to quit film-making,” he added. “K2 was very generous to us that year because, unlike in 2014, no climber or team was able to reach the summit of the mountain last year [in 2015].”
The audience felt movies that highlight the beauty and culture of Pakistan need to be shown to the world, and requested Lee to submit the documentary to the Academy Awards committee. The movie was earlier screened at a few film festivals.
According to Lee, the documentary is dedicated to Amir Mehdi, the high-altitude porter from Pakistan, who lost all his toes due to frostbite while assisting mountain climbers during the first successful ascent of K2 in 1954.
Apart from this documentary, Lee has also directed movies, such as Cultures of Resistance, Life is Waiting and The Suffering Grasses. Lee made a short film on Pakistan for the first time in 2012 titled The Kalasha and the Crescent.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2016.