Interview with Climber & Filmmaker Isabela Zawistowska

We interviewed climber and filmmaker, Isabela Zawistowska about her feature short film, Approach to Caliche.

Approach to Caliche is a short film about Nicole Vidal, who shares her story about embracing failure through climbing. Nicole Vidal is the only female climbing guide in Puerto Rico and is the co-founder of @mocaclimbing.

To watch Approach to Caliche, you can watch the film here.


Can you talk more about Approach to Caliche and your experience making your first short film? Were there any difficulties you encountered while filming?

I happened to be in Puerto Rico with my family during the winter holidays last year and wanted to share Nicole’s story through film. I tend to gravitate towards strong women who go against the grain and Nicole stood out to me as that type of person. We’re also good friends and I have a lot of respect for her as a thoroughly good human being. She’s also a lifeforce in the climbing community in Puerto Rico.

One of my family members who was with me at the time was my uncle, who is a continuous source of inspiration for me. He’s an experienced cinematographer and had some camera equipment with him, including a drone and an audio recording device. I figured it was a great opportunity to learn about the filmmaking process from someone who could offer mentorship along the way and help capture some drone footage.

Many of the island’s crags are well-developed and easily accessible! From limestone to basalt, there’s a variety of different rock and climbing styles. Several routes are accompanied by some incredible views. I was particularly awestruck by this one classic overhanging route called “My Right Foot” in Caliche, which overlooks lush forest and quaint neighborhoods. Nicole agreed to be filmed climbing the route, since she hadn’t yet redpointed it, and was excited to open up about her own story!

The main difficulties I encountered while filmmaking were related to the time constraints and having to learn new things on the fly (like how to get a better shot while shooting at 60 fps and correct for exposure). We only had one day to shoot the film, starting from noon to the last bit of light. Once it got dark, we managed to get some audio, while sitting in the back of Nicole’s car. It became an actual steam room inside, forcing us to open the door and take breathers in between interview questions!

Beyond the time constraints, there’s the confidence aspect. When I was filming Nicole climbing the roof (the crux of the route), I was attached to a fixed line and clipped into one of the bolts above her. I felt like I messed up one of the key shots, because my feet were in the way as she was pulling the roof move. Instead of sticking with the shot, I apologized and awkwardly tried to move out of the way. In reality, I could have just stuck to the shot a little longer. My uncle, who’s a long-time mentor of mine, was watching from below. He told me to avoid apologizing in the moment, focus on the shot, and apologize later if necessary. That advice resonated with me as someone who tends to shy away from taking up space and making mistakes.

How did you come up with the idea for this short film?

When I initially wanted to film Nicole, I wasn’t sure what aspect of her story to focus on. Should I focus on the broader climbing community through her eyes? Should it just be a film about her climbing up a route? Should it be about her guiding service, Moca Climbing? I wrote a brief shot list and storyline, but felt a little limited due to only having one day to shoot.

I ended up focusing on her climbing the route and her mindset toward climbing. I knew she was deeply passionate about embracing a growth mindset, so there was a lot to pull from as far as making her mindset a focus for the film.

Nicole talks about failure as a learning experience and ties it into climbing. I was wondering if you could talk about your personal experience in dealing with failure and what you learned from it?

Oh dear, this is a hard question for me. I feel like I fail everyday! I think climbing has taught me to become more self-sufficient. Sometimes I feel like I need the approval of others in order to move forward. With climbing, there are moments where you really need to rely on your own judgement and experience and make the right decision. At some point, you get so far down the line, that you need to simply trust yourself and push through. There are definitely some days, however, where I get scared to move forward in climbing. I have backed off of traditional routes because I was afraid of the unknown. What if I go left up this face and the route is in the opposite direction and I can’t downclimb? Everytime I face these types of mental cruxes I am always humbled and reminded of my own personal fears of uncertainty in life. 

During our interview, Nicole mentioned that sometimes your own fears in life translate to the way you climb. I definitely agree with this. My fear of the unknown in my own life has definitely reared its head during a climb. But I think if you can acknowledge those fears, you’re one step ahead of the game. Acknowledge your fears and inch your way towards them. Even if your fears get the best of you today, there’s always tomorrow, and the next day! And if you fail, at least you tried. Be kind to yourself, and try again another day.

It’s briefly mentioned that the climbing community is really small but slowly growing. Did Nicole explain why that is and could you give us a bit more detail about her response?

There are several theories that explain why the climbing community in Puerto Rico remains small. Many locals don’t know that there’s climbing on the island, despite there being several easily accessible and well-maintained crags. But things are definitely changing. Folks like Nicole have done a great job of introducing people to climbing and helping them build the skills they need to get out on their own. She and her husband, Leo, would regularly host Sunday meet-ups where climbers could review skills, ask questions and meet potential climbing partners.

Bryant Huffman, who runs Climbing Puerto Rico, has also played an integral role in the growth of the climbing community. He recently opened El Bloque, a bouldering gym located in San Juan. When I visited in December 2019, we spoke about how many of the locals were getting after it and finding community through the gym.

With more opportunities to build relationships with each other and develop the confidence to climb on their own, more people are getting psyched to climb outside.

Nicole is the only woman or female climbing guide in Puerto Rico and co-owns a rock guiding service. Is there a reason why you decided to not explore this topic? Do you plan to explore this topic in detail in the future?

If we had more than one day to film, I would have loved to discuss this more. I would also like to shed some light on the rest of the climbing scene down there and involve other voices from the community.

Can you share with us any upcoming projects that you would like to share with us and where we can find you on social media and on the web?

I currently live with my partner in the Eastern Sierra. Before the pandemic broke out, I was working on a project about a local business owner who runs a seasonal bakeshop outside of Mammoth Lakes! We are excited to film more once businesses start opening up in our county.

You can always find me at @isabelazawist (my personal account) or @chayofilms, which is a collaborative film group I started to connect with other filmmakers and local artists. If you ever want to collaborate on a project, I would love to hear from you!

And lastly, where can we find Nicole on social media, her guiding service?

You can follow her personal Instagram account at @nicolemvidal_ and @mocaclimbing! Definitely hit up @mocaclimbing if you’re looking to spend a day with two awesome guides (Nicole and her husband, Leo), and the cutest 5-pound crag dog, Moca!


Isabela Zawistowska

Isabela grew up in Vancouver, BC and moved to the Southeast when she was 15 years old. She studied Public Policy and Social and Economic Justice at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She recently moved to the Eastern Sierra where she’s growing a collaborative film group, Chayo Films, and managing communications for a nonprofit: Ascend. She’s an avid climber and loves to feature the stories of the humans around her.

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