Saturday, 6 March 2010

I'm Gonna Die To Boney M.

Another day, another exceptional documentary. (I guess when you're only watching the most acclaimed of the acclaimed, you've gotta hope that they're going to be good.)

Touching The Void is one of those films that I've spent years and years hitting myself over the head because of every time I hear it mentioned, as I hadn't seen it despite almost everyone I know having loved it and raved about it. In the couple of years after it released it would literally come up monthly, but even just last year I reckon it came up organically in various conversations maybe half a dozen times. It almost felt like I had seen it, after the role it has played in my life.

The documentary is the story of two young and relatively inexperienced mountain climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, and their quest to conquer the heretofore unclimbed Western face of the 6,000-odd metre Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. These two British friends have climbed some mountains before in the Swiss Alps, they're passionate, but they're young, probably a bit naive, and definitely have no contingency for what could happen to them up there. Plus, it would appear they don't really understand what that face is all about - there's probably a damn good reason that face has never been scaled before, because it's nigh on impossible.

The pair start up in good weather, making good headway, even thinking they may get to the summit on their first day. The weather turns bad as the day wears on, however, and they bunk in for the night. The next day is pretty damn good also, but the going is very, very tough. They're dealing with vertical, with powdery snow clinging onto improbable surfaces, overhanging in patterns seeming to send a big ol' 'fuck you' to physics. They get to the summit absolutely exhausted, and begin to descend, and that, of course, is where disaster strikes. It's pretty bad, what happens, but looking back on it, you can't help but feel how incredibly lucky there were at so many other points along the way. To be able to get out of it with both alive, considering the conditions they were dealing with and the abject lack of preparation, is nothing short of a miracle. It is so easy in mountaineering situations to end up a statistic, a frozen corpse waiting to be retrieved, that with all of their youthful zealousness they are alive to tell the tale. I mean, they went up with only a random they had met travelling at the bottom to mind their stuff, they didn't have any failsafe plans should they not return after a certain period of time, they only had a few days worth of food and gas, the authorities didn't have a schedule on them even so that if they were away for, I don't know, three days longer than the plan they could send a rescue squad. It was literally them and this inexperienced guy at the bottom, going hell for broke, risking their lives on a treacherous slope, and hoping for the best. Having said that, the tenacity they showed getting back down is nothing short of extraordinary. In the face of such horror they pulled through with aplomb.

A significant portion of Kevin Macdonald's film is reenactment, which allows for so much more tension to be instilled in the film. While it is for the most part narrated by the mature incarnations of our two protagonists, the majority of the screentime are these actors portraying the pair on the mountain, with an occasional talking head popping in to frame. As you know through the beginning happy times that something bad has to happen (otherwise it's just a puff piece, right?) this allows for the film to be nailbitingly tense the whole way through. Edge of your seat, literally. One must assume Macdonald had the real talking head footage shoot out of the way before he ran along to film the reenactments, which also means the film essentially would have been double-edited (excellently, by Justine Wright) to first whittle down the narration and then re-cut it all in with the mountain shoot. And the cinematography! Just beautiful (from Mike Eley and Keith Partridge.) The scenes in the mountains (or most of the film) were stunning, truly stunning. Nighttime, daytime, summit, ice caves, it was all beautiful without exploiting, showing what needed to be shown to serve the story, creatively achieving what I'm sure was impossible given the task of shooting actors in the conditions experienced by Simpson and Yates.

5 stars, an excellent film, let alone a documentary. Touching The Void is one of those docos that I think even those who hate docos would love.

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