|Mild ones on the roof of the world in The Highest Pass.|
* * The Highest Pass. Written by Adam Schomer. Directed by Jon Fitzgerald. Available on Netflix.
Anyone interested in India and who enjoys Top Gear-esque road adventures should be up for Jon Fitzgerald’s The Highest Pass.
The eponymous pass is a road in northern India that boasts the highest stretch of “motorable” pavement in the world. This is above 18,000 feet, accessed first through dizzying Indian traffic, then breathtaking landscapes that seem to threaten avalanche with every switchback. Fitzgerald documents a trip upcountry by a handful of Americans, led by Anand Mehrotra, a 27 year-old Indian guru and avid biker. Awkwardly, most of Anand’s followers hunger not just for spiritual development, but for basic experience on motorcycles. The spectacle this film presents—of two-wheel novices risking their necks in a country where road rules seem optional—raises issues far more basic than spiritual enlightenment. As in, does anybody get killed?
Largely told through the eyes of Schomer, this adventure is a purely elective affair. No one is delivering life-saving medicine to remote villages here. Instead, the entourage of LA-based model/actors, stunt men and graphic designers seek to find their “higher selves”, to step outside the trap of their constrained, materially comfortable lives. Anand himself suggested the trip, apparently in direct defiance of an astrological “prophecy” that he would die in an accident at the age of 27. Leading his pack of mild ones to elevations usually visited only by airliners, the smooth-talking guru dispenses the equivalent of spiritual comfort food to his followers as they bounce off truck fenders and gasp for oxygen. More than once, Fitzgerald and Schomer hint that Anand is nuts.
On an obvious level, The Highest Pass seems like a over-produced vacation video. It takes some cynicism—but not much—to make fun of these guys, waxing karmic in their Maui Jim shades. Listening to them go on about “powering through adversity” as virtually the entire population of rural India “powers through” adversity they’ll never imagine is hard to take. But let’s be gracious: stunt men and model/actors are entitled to their shares of enlightenment too. While Schomer and his crew might seem like spiritual tourists, there are far, far worse kinds of tourists to be in this world. It may be painful to hear them talk, but the stunning Himalayan vistas captured by Dean Mitchell would be worth it, even with the sound turned off.
The Highest Pass strays into questionable territory when the expedition reaches a pass blocked by a June snowstorm. Normally this would entail a two day delay. But Anand, who seems strangely impatient for a guru, insists on traversing the pass immediately, pressuring the Indian road crew to plow farther, faster. The bikers take on a degree of risk in this, which is their prerogative. But nobody seems to have asked whether it’s fair to the road workers, let alone anybody else following them down a prematurely-opened road, to expose them to increased risk of avalanche. Never mind karmic liberation—what about moral hazard?
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro