Free Solo

Directors: Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi ’00 and Jimmy Chin. Vasarhelyi has made six full-length documentaries, beginning with A Normal Life (2003), which was inspired by her senior thesis on postwar Kosovo. A comparative literature major, she and co-director Hugo Berkeley ’99 premiered the film at the 2003 Tribeca Film Festival, where it won Best Documentary. PAW featured her Sundance Award-winning film Meru (2015), which was shortlisted for an Oscar. She co-directed Meru with Chin, a professional climber, and they married in 2013. Free Solo is their second film together.

Release: Sept. 28, from National Geographic Documentary Films.

Synopsis: This immersive documentary follows pro climber Alex Honnold from his cramped “dirtbag” van to the big open sky around and below El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Honnold’s journey is anything but straight up: It’s a story of discipline and drive, but it’s also a story of false starts and falls. “Free solo” is how he climbs — no rope, no partner below. Along the way, he meets someone who threatens the whole enterprise, a girl who shows him how to be vulnerable, express emotion, and love.

Motivation for making it: All six of Vasarhelyi’s films have felt “incredibly personally significant” to her, and each has had a unique political stake. Where her earlier films captured political violence and its aftermath, Free Solo tracks an inner turbulence: Honnold’s struggle for identity, intimacy, vulnerability. The film asks big questions about how to live with both risk and intention in an uncertain time. “He inspires us to have courage. He inspires us to be better people,” Vasarhelyi says, speaking for herself and Chin. She was moved by Honnold’s patient, focused mindfulness, his trust, his grit, his uniquely stubborn discipline. “And let this inspire you — because it applies to my 5-year-old daughter, and it applies to my mother. The world may be big, the world may be hard, but still, we as individuals who have a vision and drive can make a difference,” she says.

Takeaways from Princeton: “Any film is about story,” Vasarhelyi says, documentaries included. “You can have the greatest situation in real life ... arrive in your lap, and if you don’t know how to tell a story, people won’t understand it.” She says she has felt inspired by her literature seminars with Michael Wood and Robert Fagles, who taught her, “It’s about how you tell a story: when you reveal moments, and how you construct and reveal an emotional truth that both engages your mind and your heart.”

Advice for aspiring filmmakers: Vasarhelyi says it’s crucial to persist, to ask for what you want. “You have to ask the questions,” she says, even if you fear rejection. “It’s OK if people say no to you. It’s OK,” she says. As a filmmaker and mother of two children under the age of 6, she says, “The reality is still really, really difficult. You need to know that people can do both, and women can be both. It won’t always be pretty.” It’s actually important to “let people know that you’re doing both,” she adds.


Director: Sean Hartofilis ’03, who also wrote it, edited it, acted in it, and composed original songs. Covadonga is Hartofilis’ second full-length film; his first, Beach Pillows, won the Van Gogh World Cinema Screenwriting award at the 2013 Amsterdam Film Festival. Paste Magazine praised it for its easy rhythm, which turned Vincent Kartheiser from his role as Pete Campbell on Mad Men — smug, ambitious, vicious — into a bro.

Release: Oct. 31, through Vimeo.

Synopsis: Covadonga follows Martin Ravin, a songwriter and widower haunted by a dark past. He mourns his wife and their lives together by living a solitary life in a secluded lake house.

Other Notable Films from Alumni

• Director Josephine Decker ’03’s film Madeline’s Madeline — an IndieWire Critics Pick at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year — was one of five Best Feature nominees at the IFP Gotham Awards Nov. 26.

• Actors Molly Ephraim ’08 and Tommy Dewey ’01 were part of the cast of Jason Reitman’s The Front Runner, a story based on Sen. Gary Hart’s ill-fated 1988 presidential campaign.

• Director Craig Leon ’85 explores the debate over spraying pesticides in Miami Beach to combat the mosquito-borne Zika virus in Sprayed, a documentary now available on Amazon Prime.

• Joel and Ethan Coen ’79’s new Netflix release, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is “an exemplary political film” set in the Wild West, according to a New Yorker review.

The narrative is a slow build, with little dialogue and an eerie tone. Ravin’s routine is interrupted when a young, drunk couple trespasses on his property in the middle of the night and steals his canoe — and somehow, only the boy makes it back. Hartofilis calls the film an “Irish Gothic folk horror freakout.” Reel Chicago characterized it as “intriguing and surreal”, and the Chicago Tribune called Hartofilis a “grand talent.”

Motivations for making it: The micro-budget film was shot over 10 days with the help of a small team in one location: Lakeville, Pa. Hartofilis embraced these restrictions. “I wanted to be very purposeful in defining our physical limitations so that creatively, I could be limitless and give all of myself,” he says. “Within this framework, I chose to run directly towards everything I’d previously feared in order to mine something new.” The film was an attempt to “explore the inevitable darkness in our lives and how our response to it dictates the world we live in,” he says.

Takeaways from Princeton: Hartofilis is an All-American and national champion lacrosse player turned filmmaker. At Princeton, he took Introductory Film and Video Practice with Su Friedrich, and Advanced Film & Video Practice with Keith Sanborn. “In those classes I wrote original material, shot what I wrote, performed in it, and edited it, and I spent more time doing that work than in all my other classes combined,” Hartofilis says. “I learned a lot then that I’ve used since.”  

Advice for aspiring filmmakers: “Don’t wait or ask for anyone’s permission or approval to do your work.  You don’t need anointing,” Hartofilis says with emphasis. After graduating from Princeton with a politics major, he decided to not attend film school; instead, he just began creating. “Very plainly, analyze the physical elements necessary to accomplish your goal, and secure them,” he says. “Everything else is a distraction.”