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The limits of human endurance
A UK region 2 DVD review of TOUCHING THE VOID by Slarek
 

Since the considerable commercial success of Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, the documentary feature is undergoing a welcome renaissance, and is not just giving the fiction-based brother a run for its money but dramatically beating it at its own game. Bowling Columbine had the political bite American features have lacked since the late 70s, Être et Avoir managed to present children in a moving and involving way without a hint of Hollywood mawkishness, and Rivers and Tides succeeded in getting closer to communicating what drives an artist than any based-on-fact drama. And now we have Touching the Void, a study of survival against insane odds that is more gripping, more thrilling than any fictional feature I've watched so far this year. Truth, as is often claimed, may not actually be stranger than fiction, but on the evidence of this extraordinary movie, it's a whole lot more exciting.

In May 1985, young British climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates chose to scale a treacherous unclimbed face of the Siula Grande mountain in the Peruvian Andes. Others had tried but had always been defeated by the sheer difficulty of the climb and the sometimes treacherous conditions, but the enthusiasm and youth of the two men convinced them that they would succeed where others had failed. They elected to climb the mountain 'Alpine style', tethered to each other and carrying only enough food and equipment for a single shot at the summit, and with the weather initially on their side they made phenomenally good progress. Even when the clouds built up and the wind and snow slowed them down to a crawl, they took shelter and battled on, and despite some intimidating snow formations on the mountain's ridge, they made it to the top. It was on the way down that the problems began. The weather moved in again and they became lost, then Yates nearly fell. But they were a good way down the mountain when disaster struck, and Simpson slipped and broke his leg. As high as they still were and with the weather so poor, this meant only one thing – Yates would have to go on and leave Simpson to die alone on the mountain. But Yates did not leave him, instead devising a way of lowering his companion three-hundred feet at a time using two ropes knotted together. Despite the excruciating pain this put Simpson through, it appeared to be working, at least until Simpson slipped over a ledge and was left dangling in mid air, too weak and injured to pull himself up or communicate with Yates, who was dug into the snow, unable to lower the rope further and being slowly pulled towards the ledge and his own probable death. Believing Simpson to be dead, he eventually took the decision to cut the rope, sending his companion plumetting through air and ice until he came to rest on a ledge at the top of a deep crevice. What happened next was to become part of mountaineering legend.

To suggest that mountaineers are a different breed to the rest of us is somewhat simplistic, but as someone whose stomach goes into knots if I get above the third floor of a building, the appeal of clambering up the side of a sheer rock or ice face with nothing below but plummeting death has curiously edluded me. But I love mountains – I think they are among the most beautiful and awe-inspiring objects to be found anywhere in nature, and I have a genuine admiration for those who do choose to scale them. Hell, if I wasn't so terrified of heights, was younger and fitter and had the same sense of driven adventure, I'd certainly think about doing it too.

Mountaineering stories have a fascination for me, in part because they often seem to involve individuals triumphing against impossible odds for no other reason than the thrill of doing it. But even within the ranks of great mountaineering survival stories, this one stands high. The above plot synopsis merely sets the scene – things get far, far worse before they get better. It is Simpson's struggle to survive, to get out of a seemingly impossible situation (and since he is the first person interviewed in the film, as well as the writer of the book on which the film is based, we know he does survive) that provides the meat of the film, providing it with its narrative and making it such a compelling cinematic experience.

The structure is deceptively simple: interviews with the three main protagonists – Simpson, Yates and Richard Hawking, a non-climber who joined their team after meeting them en route and who stayed at base camp for the duration of the climb – are alternated with reconstructions of the climb itself and subsequent descent. And that's it. So just what is it that makes it so extraordinary?

First up is the story itself. As anyone who has read Simpson's riveting book will tell you, this is one hell of a tale. Even told by a friend over a pint at the pub it would have you slack-jawed in astonishment, but related by those involved it is something else – all three interviewees here are engaging and hugely likeable, and are both honest and direct in the telling of their stories. Simpson in particular paints a most vivid picture of the suffering he went through – his description of what happened to the bones in his leg when it broke had the entire cinema audience on my first viewing sucking air through clenched teeth in horror in a way that no staged version could prompt (the film's own recreation of the event is nicely matter-of-fact and doesn't even try to compete).

And then there are the reconstructions. Now I, for one, was more than a little cynical about this element, as reconstructions in documentaries are too often flatly performed and directed, but right from the early big close-ups of pitons being driven into ice and wider shots of the climbers dwarfed by their surroundings there is a stamp of documentary authenticity on these sequences. This is enhanced further by unfussy performances by Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron as Simpson and Yates respectively – even in the most emotionally charged moment, when Simpson, lying trapped in a crevice with no hope of escape screams obscenities into the blackness, the performance never feels 'acted'. More often than not they are there to visualise the description of the commentators, but even at this level the film-making is arresting and often genuinely inspired – the climbers' description of snow formations on the peak is intriguing, but actually seeing them is breathtaking. As the film progresses, these scenes become less observational and less illustrative, and more about connecting emotionally with Simpson's deteriorating mental state. Exhausted, chronically dehydrated, in constant pain and convinced he was going to die, it is genuinely impossible to really imagine what Simpson went through, but director Kevin Macdonald (who won an Oscar in 2000 for his electrifying account of the 1992 Munich hostage incident, One Day in September) comes closer to visualising the experience than you'd expect from a docudrama, most vividly in his use of the snorricam so beloved of Darren Aronovsky, where the camera is connected directly to the actor so that it moves with him and feels locked in to his emotional state.

The photography is often breathtaking but never superficially so, and is instead used to most effectively create a sense of the sheer scale of the landscape and the task facing the two climbers, and later the seemingly impossible nature of Simpson's predicament. This is emphasised by the sound design, whether it be the crunch of snow beneath the climbers' feet, the genuinely heart-stopping noise of cracking ice when Simpson is crawling across it in pursuit of an escape route, or the infuriating running water that the desperately thirsty climber can hear but not reach.

Touching the Void wipes the floor with idiotic, overblown Hollywood fare like Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit and from a mountainous height. This is the genuine article, a real climber in a genine life-or-death situation, and an astonishing story of man's ability to survive against all odds. Abandon any negative preconceptions you may have of the documentary genre formed by too many nights watching The History Channel – Touching the Void is more thrilling, more awe-inspiring, more genuinely, heart-clenchingly gripping than any fiction film I have seen all year.

sound and vision

Framed at 1.78:1 and anamorphically enhanced, this is a first-rate transfer typical of VCI at their best. Sunlight snowscapes in particular really shine, with excellent contrast and bright, solid colour rendition – there is visible grain on some night scenes, but this was just as evident in the cinema.

As if beating fictional features at their own game in terms of emotional involvement wasn't enough, the film has a 5.1 soundtrack that, though not overly showy in the way of Hollywood features, blows almost everything else I've heard this year out of the water just for its subtle effectiveness. Wind howls around the room, ice falls from on high and clatters to the ground behind your head, deep rumbles that seem to emanate from the mountains themselves rattle the bass. The sense of place is vividly evoked and the mix manages also to create a sense of both the majesty and the danger of the location, never more so than in the aforementioned scene in which Simpson has to cross an ice platform to reach a potential safety route and the sounds of cracking ice shoot around the room alarmingly, really adding to the already cranked-up tension of this scene. Some have complained that much of the sound (at least on the region 1 disk) is front weighted, but since the soundtrack consists mainly of interview material, where did they seriously expect it to come from? The 5.1 is used to its best – not flashiest – effect at all times, never more so than in the film's most memorable moment, when the Simpson's whole consciousness, and the entire soundstage, is overwhelemed by Boney M singing Brown Girl in the Ring (you need to see the film to understand why).

extra features

Though there are just three extras on this disk, all are not just worthwhile, but good enough to buy the disk for even if you caught the film at the cinema.

If the concept of a 'making of' documentary for a documentary feature seems a little odd, then go check out the excellent one on the Dark Days disk – the story of the film's making is almost as extraordinary as the feature itself. Though shorter than that particular extra and slimmer on revelatory detail, Return to Siula Grande is still a fascinating and informative piece in its own right. Shot and directed by MacDonald, it includes footage of the shoot itself and a few genuine surprises, the biggest being that Simpson and Yates actually played themselves in some of the reconstruction sequences. But the key inclusion has to be extracts from Simpson's own video diary, which he kept during the shoot. Right from the start he has severe reservations about returning to the Siula Grande, all too aware of the memories it will re-awaken, and as the film progresses these talks to camera make for increasingly uncomfortable viewing, as we are forced to think long and hard about what Simpson had to go through for our entertainment. Close to the end, MacDonald interviews Simpson and asks him how he feels about returning to this location, and he replies with a barely controlled mixture of anger and contempt: "Do you have any idea how bad it was? I don't think you do. I don't think you have the first idea. I died here!" An essential extra, this is presented in non-anamorphic 16:9 with Dolby 2.0 sound, and runs for 25 minutes.

What Happened Next is anamorphic 16:9 and runs for close to 10 minutes, and consists of more interview footage with the three main protagonists. The title tells all here – the interviews detail what happened after the three had left the mountain, and include some pretty extraordinary information, especially regarding Simpson's lack of medical treatment at the hospital they eventually reach. This works as a nicely effective postscript to the film itself.

Finally there is the Trailer, which is anamorphic 16:9 and has – and this is a rare thing for a trailer – a 5.1 soundtrack. As usual for a documentary trailer, it's cut like it's for a thriller (which, to an extent, it is), but is very nicely done, and the use of sound and graphics is particularly effective.

summary

After some years consigned to TV screenings on specialist satellite channels, the documentary feature is back where it belongs, in the cinema, and partly as a result is getting decent DVD releases. Touching the Void is not just an excellent example of the genre, it manages to beat most recent fictional thrillers at their own game. This is compelling, thrilling cinema, and if it inevitably loses something of its extraordinary scale on the smaller screen (it should be noted that when we screened this in the cinema it played to a full house), it still looks and (especially) sounds great on DVD, boasts a couple of first-rate extras and, most importantly, remains one of the year's genuinely exciting and beautifully realised films.

Touching the Void

UK / USA 2003
106 mins
director
Kevin Macdonald
starring
Joe Simpson
Simon Yates
Richard Hawking

DVD details
region 2
video .
1.78:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby 5.1 surround
languages
English
subtitles
English
extras
Return to Siula Grande featurette
What Happened Next featurette
Trailer
distributor
VCI / Film 4
release date
4 April 2004
review posted
8 May 2004

See all of Slarek's reviews