Film and TV

Q&A: Filmmaker Renan Ozturk on ‘The Sanctity of Space,’ Alaska mountaineering and Bradford Washburn’s legacy

Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson cross the Moose’s Tooth massif during filming for "The Sanctity of Space"

In the new documentary “The Sanctity of Space,” two world-renowned mountaineers attempt to conquer a climbing obsession in the Alaska Range and delve into the legacy of pioneering explorer and cartographer Bradford Washburn.

Renan Ozturk and Freddie Wilkinson, who are also the film’s co-directors, set out on “The Tooth Traverse” — covering the Moose’s Tooth massif from one side to the other — after Wilkinson sees an unclimbed route in a Washburn photograph.

The duo will premiere the film in Alaska over the next few days, with screenings in Talkeetna this weekend and in Anchorage starting early next week.

Washburn, who climbed and mapped some previously uncharted areas in Alaska during the first half of the 20th century, is also touted as the “Ansel Adams of the skies” for his aerial mountain photography. His wife, Barbara Washburn, was a trailblazing climber as well, and in 1947 became the first woman to climb Denali.

Ozturk talked to the Daily News about the inspiration for the route, the boom in climbing films and the “fiercely independent, pioneering, brilliant AK local souls” who keep bringing him back to the state’s mountain ranges.

The following conversation has been lightly edited.

ADN: What made the traverse of the Moose’s Tooth massif an infatuation for you and Wilkinson as climbers, as well as a compelling subject for the film? What separates it from other notable peaks or areas in Alaska?


Ozturk: In this day and age, it’s really hard to find big lines that haven’t been done, so when Freddie showed me this one on a Washburn photo I was blown away, especially on such an iconic Alaska skyline. We called it “The Tooth Traverse.” I’m such a visually driven person, and this serrated skyline with so many sections that had not been climbed was the ultimate canvas to draw a line across and experience firsthand. It felt like falling in love.

We wanted to do it as a continuous enchainment sleeping along the way on the climb, which required years of strategy and recon for the different types of rock, ice and snow climbing involved. Over the different attempts, we were not only obsessed with doing the climb but the act of capturing it, in the spirit of Washburn.

In the end we went for broke to bring in a heli with the help of Talkeetna Air Taxi pilot Paul Roderick, which was a big creative step for us and climbing cinematography in the greater range. Normally these types of shoots are “posed down” and set up after the first ascent has taken place, but this was all happening in real time at great risk, not knowing if we could even do the climb.

ADN: Washburn’s works established a sort of visual template for the film and also a bit of a roadmap for the route. How important are his work and legacy (as an explorer, photographer and cartographer) to the modern climber?

Ozturk: Brad’s ethos of photography, and how you can use the human form to give a sense of scale to the massive features of the Alaska Range, was our guiding force for the cinematography in the film. His photo library is still the gold standard in what a lot of climbers look at to find new routes, much like we did for The Tooth Traverse, but his legacy is so much more than that.

HORIZONTAL WHITE SPACE Bradford Washburn holds a camera he used for aerial photography The Sanctity of Space

Although we don’t say it literally in the film ,we hope that folks will understand that the true spirit of Washburn is the endless pursuit and search for knowledge in these wild landscapes and the sharing of it with others. We believe that in this process, humanity will connect emotionally with such places, and it will be crucial for conservation in these crucial times of change.

ADN: In this film, you and Wilkinson are both responsible for driving the story and, in turn, telling the story. What’s it like wearing both of those hats, and how tangled did those relationships get during production?

Ozturk: It was often awkward trying to make a film about ourselves, which is why we worked with very talented editors Erin Barnett and Chad Ervin, who did a good job of “laying down the law” when it came to portraying our characters. I’ll be honest that there were some pretty tricky hurdles and tearful nights as it all came together, but that’s how you know everyone is deeply invested and engaged.

ADN: There are a lot of appearances in the film from Alaskans (pilots, guides, etc.) and people who have spent a lot of time in the state and in its mountains. What do you feel is the defining trait of Alaska mountaineering culture and the people involved in it? Did that shape the film in any way?

Ozturk: We often joked that Alaska was a “haven for misfits,” which is why we seemed to fit in to the gritty subculture of bush pilots and guides in Talkeetna. But in all honesty, it’s those relationships with fiercely independent, pioneering, brilliant AK local souls that kept us coming back even more than the mountains themselves.

Moose’s Tooth massif

ADN: There has been a run of popular (and generally very good) climbing movies in recent years. What makes this film different from some of its predecessors and what do you think is the appeal for audiences in these films?

Ozturk: We considered it a lot since we are good friends with the other filmmakers and have contributed to these other recent climbing feature docs.

Overall, we wanted to make a core climbing film that would appeal to a wider audience in the way that it didn’t overplay the death and suffering aspect of big mountain climbing. Of course those elements are ever-present in our world and in our film, but our “controlling idea” was based more around the pure joy of climbing. If we could transport audiences to the Alaska Range with never-before-seen perspectives of the range, have them fall in love with Washburn like we did, and bring them along for our climb in a more lighthearted manner, than maybe we could help people understand the big unexplainable “why” of this risky lifestyle. “If they could only see it, they would understand why,” we would often say.

Washburn taught us that focusing on the pure sharing of adventure and visual technologies, was a way to transcend words and express this delight in new and exciting ways.

• • •

‘The Sanctity of Space’

• Sheldon Community Arts Hangar in Talkeetna

7 p.m. Friday and Saturday

General admission: $30


Admission for Denali Arts Council members: $24


• Bear Tooth Theatrepub in Anchorage

5:30 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, 5:30 and 8 p.m. Thursday

General admission: $7 for individual tickets, variable pricing for booths

Note: There will be a brief Q&A with Freddie Wilkinson following the Tuesday showing.


Chris Bieri

Chris Bieri is the sports and entertainment editor at the Anchorage Daily News.