The story of Scottish mountaineer, Hamish MacInnes, is one that goes beyond his accomplishments as a climber.
In his career he led the first British ascent of the Bonatti Pillar of the Dru in the French Alps as well as took part in four expeditions to Mount Everest amongst other unbelievable feats.
He is an author, photographer as well as an expeditionary filmmaker and an iconic figure responsible for some of the greatest ingenuity that’s impact on mountain climbing today cannot be overstated.
Beyond this, though, is the story of his personal struggles with mental health. Director, Robbie Fraser, documents this and more in Final Ascent which is showing at a sold out screening this year’s Glasgow Film Festival.
We got the chance to sit down with Robbie and delve into how he became involved in the project, the lasting impression Hamish has had on him, and much more.
HeyUGuys: Your documentary, Final Ascent, premiered at this years’ Glasgow Film Festival. Do you still get a buzz when your films show at GFF?
Robbie Fraser: Definitely!
It’s funny because when you first make a film you are so excited about it you rely on Facebook as a way of getting the word out.
For me it has been quite an important thing to step away from that and focus on what audience the film can find on its own.
It seems to be taking off better than any of my previous films. Part of that is due to the sense in which Hamish is viewed by the climbing community as a national treasure. Having the likes of Michael Palin and Chris Bonington involved is brilliant.
What was it that drew you to this project?
I’d never heard of Hamish MacInnes and don’t know anything about mountaineering at all.
I said previously how I thought that belaying had something to do with pirate ships [laughs]. Went up Goat Fell in Arran and just about puked when I was at the top.
That was my experience of the hills.
Douglas Eadie is someone that we worked with in the past few years and he along with Alasdair MacCuish, my producing partner, suggested the idea of a Hamish MacInnes film. Doug made a film about Dougal Haston who was the James Hunt of mountaineering.
Doug interviewed Hamish for that film and suggested a simply one hour film on Hamish MacInnes for BBC.
The BBC said okay, this is a semi-forgotten national treasure and we need to restore his colours and they’d asked if he’d any never seen before archive.
We found out Hamish had 50,000 still images in his basement in a fireproof safe that contained all his negatives. So we thought we’ll tell his life story through his images.
When we went to interview him for the first time and I was thinking this was a one-hour TV doc. When we sat down with him, he said he didn’t want to talk about his mountaineering career and instead wanted to talk about the time he was sectioned against his will.
He found this experience extremely traumitising as you can imagine for a man of the mountains. This happens to people every day of the week and the NHS do a great job but he found it extra traumatic.
My antenna was up at this point because I knew the story had more depth and dimension.
How did Hamish react to the documentary when he finally seen it?
I was really nervous about Hamish seeing it, obviously. He has an old friend from Vermont, Rob Taylor, who comes over every six weeks to look after Hamish and his affairs. So I showed it to Rob and he loved it.
We drove up from Glasgow to Glencoe together to show it to Hamish who was really silent after he watched it.
But found it profoundly affecting and said he feels it represents his experience 100%. He found it moving and traumatic to watch, so much so he is coming to GFF for the Q&A with me and Michal Palin but is unsure if he’ll watch the film.
He’s seen it a few times and said that after each time it takes him a while to recover.
Is it particular tough getting films like this out to an international audience?
It’s really tricky.
You sometimes get people calling you back to saying it sounds a bit too Scottish to be of interest. Somehow the Irish have been able to create a national brand that allows them to transform their home grown stories that are palatable to an international market.
Whereas in Scotland, most of the time unless it is a truly compelling story with international reach like Hamish MacInnes you get the ‘well, it is a bit too Scottish’.
We have to think in the same way about our stories as the Irish and how to make the Scottish-ness of something an asset.
Was Hamish open from the beginning about doing the documentary?
He was very keen to talk about the experience he had, he didn’t need any persuading. I think he felt really aggrieved about how he was treated.
We were very careful on our approach to it.
I’ve seen his hospital notes to make sure the story all lined up. He’d ordered his notes through his solicitor. For me, and Hamish may disagree, I think he was fairly treated by the NHS even though it was a deeply unpleasant experience.
He is angry about it and one of his prime motivations in agreeing to have the film made was telling that story.
What did you learn from Hamish as a person and fellow filmmaker?
In some ways I learnt he is capable of being a cantankerous old bugger and definitely the most difficult person I’ve ever had to interview [laughs].
I think he trusted us as filmmakers to communicate his experience well but it was very difficult to get him to open up on certain subjects. I am not interested in digging up the dirt on someone’s personal life but he is a man who has had several long-term relationships in his life, he was married for 10 years. He wouldn’t open up about those things at all out of a sense of chivalry or whatever it was. There is nothing to hide.
I am filled with awe in what he has achieved as a climber, expeditionary filmmaker and as a writer as well as a photographer.
Don’t think we say this in the film, but I imagine that he has saved thousands and thousands of lives through his International Mountain Rescue Handbook.
Then there is the relatively local stuff of running the Glencoe Mountain Rescue. And, of course, there is his countless inventions including the composite folding mountain rescue stretcher that is used by Special Forces.
He is an absolute Scottish hero and a wee bit under-recognized.
Did you feel inspired yourself to go out and try climbing?
Yes, I honestly did.
I’ve did a tiny bit of wall climbing but since started working on this film I’ve been up several munros and the ridge of An Teallach with Paul Tattersall as my guide.
It is all just there on our doorstep and I was quite phobic about going out and going up things party because I was unfit.
You started out through the Glasgow Film and Video Workshop [now GMAC], how much of an influence and help was that to you?
Funnily enough, I am going to go on a rant [laughs].
I was looking for a spare bit of kit one day and called them up and they said they don’t rent out equipment anymore! They only do training and development stuff, I am a wee bit upset about that.
My friend Aimara Reques, who is the owner of Aconite Productions, started our careers in film on the same day at a workshop. I got three weeks off school to do a 16m experimental course with this mad German guy.
We had to do all the horrible scary stuff I’ve never had to do since like loading film magazines which I totally fucked up. But absolutely they’ve had an influence, it was key.
Mary Queen of Scots filmed a little in Scotland but said more would have been set here if we had a major studio. How much would you say it is hurting our creative sector because we don’t have one?
At this point in my career I literally have no opinion on a studio.
I recognise, however, the importance for the wider eco-system where you could attract larger studio productions. So instead of Harry Potter and Stars Wars being shot in Pinewood or Shepperton we could have somewhere they could do it.
Marvel obviously shot a bunch of stuff in Edinburgh which was great.
Remember when Braveheart came out everybody was pissed off because it was shot in Ireland and they used the Irish army? For a producer what can they do, it’s about the cost and the practicalities of it all.
The Canadians have been exemplary where they’ve got this system of tax credits where a lot of films and shows go to Vancouver or Toronto to shoot. Canadian cinema in of itself doesn’t necessarily have the highest profile at the moment.
We do want to attract that sort of investment and give crew that sort of experience they need. I think it is equally important is encouraging Scottish writers, directors and creatives to come up with ideas that might be shot at home and have Scottish relevance.
God bless the Outlander guys but it was originated by an author who had never been to Scotland before writing the book.
Outlaw King gives us hope, I really enjoyed it. As a military romp I find it entertaining and want to see the longer version that people at Toronto seemed to hate!
What would you say in your experience is the biggest challenge for young Scottish filmmakers?
Honestly, it is making the rent.
As a freelance filmmaker I know exactly how hard it is. It is always a terror thinking ‘what am I going to do next?’.
Of course, I am genuinely grateful for the support I get from Screen Scotland and the BBC who are aware of the challenges of being a freelance independent filmmaker.
Nobody is buying any yachts!
At the moment what is it you are working on?
I am writing writing my first novel. It is a bank robbery thriller set in West Africa called Black Mamba. It’s about a bunch of idiot ex-pat wannabes who decide to conduct a bank robbery during an era of jihad and pan-African corruption.
That’s where I am getting my rocks off at the moment.