Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ’00
National Geographic/Chris Figenshau
Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ’00 has attended dozens of screenings of her Oscar-winning film Free Solo, but none were quite like this one.

“In this building, I took my only film-production class ever,” Vasarhelyi said, just before the screening began in 185 Nassau St., home of Princeton’s Program in Visual Arts. The April 8 screening was packed with students, faculty, and community members.

Free Solo tells the story of professional climber Alex Honnold’s successful attempt to climb El Capitan, a 3,000-foot wall in Yosemite National Park, without a rope. The film is a joint project of Vasarhelyi and her husband, Jimmy Chin. While Chin is a professional climber, Vasarhelyi is relatively new to the world of climbing. But audience members don’t have to be mountain climbers to appreciate the film.

“I’m interested in the human emotions of it,” Vasarhelyi said to a group of students over dinner before the screening. “I think everyone has a ‘free solo.’ We all are familiar with the pursuit of excellence, and the idea of putting in the work to pursue some audacious dream.”

When Vasarhelyi began her studies at Princeton, she intended to pursue a career in medicine, but quickly realized she was unhappy. “I was interested in stories, but also interested in politics.” She majored in comparative literature, and the first film she made began as her senior-thesis project.

The summer following her junior year, she received funding from Princeton to travel with fellow student and filmmaker Hugo Barkeley ’99 to Kosovo. “I lied to my parents and went to a war zone,” she said. “I met people who were exactly like me but born in different circumstances and were living through a war. It became my ‘free solo’ to tell their story.”

The film was about post-war Kosovo and the lives of the young people she met and interviewed. Her Princeton thesis was titled “Reconstructing Kosovo,” but the film she ultimately premiered in Tribeca was called “A Normal Life.”

She returned to Kosovo after graduating to complete her film, which focused on the lives of thje young people she met and interviewed. The final project, titled A Normal Life, won an award at the Tribeca Film Festival. “I was hooked,” she said. Since then, she has made films about a Senegalese popstar and about a climbing expedition in the Indian Himalayas, among other topics.

“I’m still scared every time I begin a movie, but I think that’s part of my process,” Vasarhelyi said. “It gives me hope to look at that scary thing and comb my way through it.”

Next, Vasarhelyi and Chin are working on a documentary about conservationist Kristine Tompkins and a film adaptation of the book The Helicopter Heist, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, about a daring 2009 robbery in Stockholm. This will be Vasarhelyi’s first narrative film.

“But my mom still asks me if I will ever be a doctor,” Vasarhelyi said.