Chai Vasarhelyi is an award-winning documentary director whose films include the highest grossing independent documentary film of 2015, MERU, co-directed with Jimmy Chin. The astounding film chronicles the story of three close friends – those among the world’s best professional climbers – who battle their complicated pasts, inner demons and nature’s harshest elements to conquer the Shark’s Fin on Mount Meru. Winner of the Audience Award at Sundance, the film was also shortlisted for the Academy Awards.
“One of the things we sought to articulate with MERU was how your passion and drive for a certain challenge can inspire you to try to attempt the impossible,” notes Chai. “Despite their accomplishments, elite climbers are reserved. As the interviewer, I asked the questions about their emotional journeys, contextualizing it for lay people. At its core, it’s an incredible story about friendship – something that we can all relate to.”
Chai and Jimmy’s newest co-directed documentary, Free Solo, follows climber Alex Honold as he becomes the first person to ever ascend to the top of Yosemite’s 3,000ft high El Capitan – without a rope. The film is an inspiring portrait of how Alex achieved one of his lifelong dreams. With beautiful cinematography and inspirational storytelling, Free Solo made its world premiere at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival, won the People’s Choice Documentary award at 2018 Toronto International Film Fest.
For Netflix, Chai helmed the story of Ralph Gilles as part of the original documentary series, Abstract: The Art of Design. The film takes a look at Gilles’ life and work as head designer for Fiat Chrysler and someone who has created some of the greatest designs of our era.
A prolific filmmaker, Chai has directed several award-winning feature documentaries. Her first film, A Normal Life, won Best Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003. Her second film, Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love, premiered at the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals and won numerous awards including the Special Jury Prize at the Middle East International Film Festival in 2008 and a nomination for the Pare Lorentz Award at the 2009 International Documentary Association Awards. Chai has filmed in Senegal with her visceral documentary, Touba, that takes the viewer through each step of the annual Mouride pilgrimage, the Grand Magaal in Touba, Senegal, premiered at SXSW 2013 where it won the Special Jury Prize for Best Cinematography. And returning to film in 2012 to document the heated Presidential elections with her film, Incorruptible – an unflinching story of Senegalese democracy premiered at the Los Angeles and Sheffield UK Film Festivals.