September-October 2013 | Person of Interest

Reel Life

With his Bethesda-based film company, explorer Peter Getzels seeks to capture the wonders of the world

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Peter Getzels lives the kind of life about which most of us can only dream.  

He has climbed the challenging peaks of Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve, spent an entire winter trapped by snow in an isolated Himalayan village and lived for a week among a tribe of hunter-gatherers in the Ecuadoran jungle.

And he has caught many of his adventures on film.

A Chevy Chase resident originally from Chicago, Getzels started out as an explorer and mountaineer, guiding climbs for the American Alpine Institute, scaling peaks in South America and Asia, and exploring such exotic locales as the Amazon and Tierra del Fuego. But these days, his trips are directed by Getzels Gordon Productions, the boutique film company he started in Bethesda in 2008.

At 57, Getzels exudes energy. During a brief tour of his 12-person office on Bethesda’s Fairmont Avenue, he leapfrogs from subject to subject, enthusiastically introducing staff members (Cathy won an Oscar; Mark is a music journalist as well as film editor; Patrick has a degree in foreign service), describing the company’s expansion (its office space has doubled in five years) and enumerating his latest projects. Among them: Harvest of Empire, a mainstream documentary about immigrants in the United States that was released in September 2012; a film-in-progress on the Hungarian holocaust during World War II; and a set of interviews comparing people living in Tehran with those in Washington, D.C., who share a single vocation such as driving a cab or doing social work.

Most recently, Getzels followed Bethesda’s Ron Naveen to Antarctica to film him counting penguins as part of research into global warming last year. He met Naveen, founder and chief executive officer of the nonprofit science and educational foundation Oceanites, through a relative in 2001.

Such explorations are deeply rooted in Getzels’ early days as an anthropologist. While getting his doctorate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, he considered anthropology “an opportunity to live in another culture immersively.” Afterward, he found “there was a natural evolution from doing fieldwork to ethnographic film.”

Getzels met his wife and business partner, Harriet Gordon, when the two attended the University of Chicago Lab School, an affiliate of the university where Getzels’ father worked as a professor. Over the years the two stayed in touch, and when Gordon was working at a television station in Chicago, Getzels called from South America: Would she come film his fieldwork in the Peruvian Andes? The two wound up living in a stone hut with a Peruvian named Caetanu, documenting the religious pilgrimage that people make to the sacred peaks nearby.

The resulting documentary was accepted into the prestigious Margaret Meade Film Festival and helped launch their careers in the early 1980s. Getzels and Gordon went on to attend the National Film and Television School in Beaconsfield, England. The couple then returned to Peru where they completed a trilogy of films. By this time, they had a baby daughter.

Two years later, the couple moved to Oxford, England, and started an independent film company, producing documentaries focused on science and adventure for the BBC, Channel 4, Discovery Channel and others over the next 16 years.

Then in 2001, National Geographic brought them to Washington, D.C., where Getzels worked on staff while Gordon worked as a contractor. They raised their daughters, now 26 and 22, in Chevy Chase.

Seven years later, Getzels Gordon Productions opened on Fairmont Avenue with a massive project that helped launch the business: a PBS series called Closer to Truth with host Robert Lawrence Kuhn. The 117-episode series, which examines the cosmos, consciousness and God, is still airing today.

Over the years, Getzels has traveled to more than 35 countries, with Gordon often accompanying him, to tell countless stories for television specials, documentary films and, increasingly, the Internet, winning more than 20 international awards for tales about everything from contemporary coffee farms (for Starbucks) to ancient Egypt (for a four-part National Geographic series).

Each project is part of his effort to “try and experience the world as fully as possible,” Getzels says. “It’s wonderful to communicate the intricacies and beauty and wonder of the world.”

Virginia Myers lives in Takoma Park and frequently writes about the arts.