Documentaries used to be the neglected step-sisters of the movie world, rarely gaining much attention at the box office. While their grosses remain miniscule in comparison with even ordinary Hollywood product, several documentaries last year garnered both critical praise and respectable attendance. Capturing the Friedmans, The Fog of War, Spellbound and Winged Migration are four wildly diverse films in both subject and technique. Each shows the passion of its independent director and each bends classic techniques in the interest of telling its story. The big studios, bogged down in bloated budgets and a lowest common denominator market orientation,have been trumped at their own game.
With the top studio products released in December (in time for Academy consideration), the new year starts with a major dumping of misfires, tired comedies and other assorted yawners into the megaplexes. After all, the Academy voters have short memories, so why open anything worthwhile at the beginning of the year? So, once again, the quality and excitement arrives in an indie documentary, this time a British film, Touching the Void, a sure shot for a 2004 Oscar nomination.
Based on a true story, as recounted in the bookof the same name by Joe Simpson, Touching the Void is a riveting account of two young mountain climbers who set out to be the first to conquer the west face of Siula Grande, a 21,000 foot, ice and snow encrusted peak in the Peruvian Andes. After triumphantly reaching the summit, Simpson, one of the climbers, had an accident on the way down; the impact of a fall pushed his shin bone up through his knee and into his femur, a painful and crippling multiple fracture. Then Yates, his partner, started to lower him down the mountain on their ropes, 300 feet at a time.
But the mountain was not finished with its tricks. Simpson slipped over the edge of a crevasse and was left dangling at the end of the rope. Yates could not hear his cries and patiently waited (in blinding snow and bitter cold) for the expected signal from Simpson. He knew he was holding his partner’s life in his hands, but his own strength was ebbing and it seemed both of them would fall to their deaths as he slid down towards the edge. Seeing no choice, he cut the rope, breaking the long held code of mountaineers.
When the story came out Yates was widely scorned for his choice. Obviously–miraculously–they both survived. Simpson’s book tells the story and clearly absolves Yates of any culpability, saying he would have done the same thing under the circumstances.
The film, by Kevin Macdonald (One Day in September), is a docudrama, reenacting these events with actors playing the two climbers and the climbing scenes filmed in the Alps. Extended talking-heads interviews with both climbers (and an acquaintance who guarded their base camp) were filmed in the studio and interleaved with the climbing footage. In addition, there is location footage to show the isolated Siula Grande. Even though the ending is known before the movie begins, Macdonald builds a suspense as mesmerizing as any Hollywood thriller. The brilliance of Mike Eley’s cinematography creates a profound sense of the smallness of man in a magnificent but indifferent universe.
One can only imagine how, say, a Disney production likely would have turned Touching the Void into a sentimentalized, triumph-of-the-athlete sort of film. But Macdonald avoids cheap pandering and astutely uses only the comments of the climbers, two rather matter-of-fact Englishmen–bright, brash, and very, very brave. Simpson is particularly articulate; his comments tend to be dry and descriptive, his emotions well contained. He remembers in vivid detail the extraordinary ordeal of his lone descent, both in terms of the physical challenges and his feelings of despair at the thought of dying alone. His determined refusal to do seems as inexplicable to him as it is inspiring to us.
Simpson was 25 at the time of the climb. His remarks convey a sense of immortality, at least at the start of the climb; when you’re that young, your own death is unimaginable. These two climbers faced their own mortality, surviving through courage, determination, and sheer grit. Touching the Void, observantly and without embellishment, memorializes their nightmare voyage through the abyss. Those with an aversion to pain need not attend.