A Dark and Honest Survival Story
I am probably one of the most experienced mountain climbers you’ve ever encountered. I’ve been to Mount Everest, where I heroically singlehandedly saved a number of other climbers from a certain death in the blizzard; I’ve cut off my arm when I got stuck under a rock; I have died miserably in an abandoned bus in Alaska, where I mixed up some herbs and ate the wrong one. And all of this without climbing a single rock or hiking in the mountains for more than a few days.
Quite amazing, isn’t it? One minute I’m staring into the eyes of Death; the next minute I pour up yet another cup of tea.
Yes, I’m what I’d call a full-fledged armchair adventurer and I’ve been it for years. Climbing for real? The thought wouldn’t cross my mind. I can’t even look down from the three meter jump in a bath without feeling absolutely nauseous. Adventures are best lived through the eyes of others.
But show me an “I-fought-for-my-life-on-a-mountain” biography and I’ll throw myself at it, cherishing every word of it.
I suppose most people find those stories somewhat exciting, but to me it’s far more than this. It’s an obsession. Considering this, it’s actually a little strange that I haven’t seen Touching the Void from 2003 until now, even though I’ve read the book by Joe Simpson that it’s based on not only once but several times.
I don’t normally re-read books; there are far too many good unread books in the world to spend more time than one reading on each. But Simpson’s book is an exception. The book isn’t just about a topic that fascinates me, it’s also very well written, and as a matter of fact superior if you ask me, compared to many other books in the genre (including Aron Ralston’s book that inspired 127 hours). Simpson has talent for writing.
I suppose the love I felt with the book could have been the reason why I approached the film a little bit hesitatingly. I already knew every stone on that mountain. I had already experienced every painful step that Joe takes as he’s crawling back to the camp. He had already told me every thought that occurred to him during his journey from hell. What could a documentary film possibly add? Maybe it would even take something away from my previous experience? Why would I risk that?
However, it turned out that my fears were unfounded. The movie follows the book very closely. I can’t say that it adds many new perspectives to what already has been said about the events on the mountains, but it’s a very well crafted film, not only the interviews with the real persons, but also the reenacting sequences, which easily could have felt a bit awkward. It was only as I saw the extra material that I realized that most of those sequences weren’t shot on spot at all, but in the European Alps. They just felt so real to me.
Not the least did I enjoy the extra documentary about the making of the movie, where we follow Joe and Simon as they return to the mountain to make some shots for the film. It impressed me that the film team didn’t try to make those parts look any prettier than they are.
Simon is quite grumpy in front of the camera, declaring that he’s only revisiting the place for the money and he doesn’t feel a thing about it. And he doesn’t hide the fact that while there never was any conflict between them about the act of cutting the rope, they’re not particularly good friends.
We see Joe going from indifference to agony during the return trip. In the end he doesn’t seem to think that bringing up all those memories again was such a great idea. It could have been tempting to arrange a tearful story about how grateful Joe was about the movie being done, suggesting that it had a healing effect on him. But they stick to the truth, even if it doesn’t always put the film team in a flattering light.
And how easy wouldn’t it have been in the main movie to go into preaching, with statements about “the meaning of life”, “seeing the light”, “meeting a higher power” or whatever? But we never see this happen. Joe is a down-to-earth kind of person and he remains that way throughout the movie.
Or they could as well have ended up closer to the self improvement and management genre.
It’s not unusual for adventurers to make a good living giving inspirational speeches to people in business about what they’ve been through, focusing more on motivation and how to reach your set goals than on details about mountaineering. But they don’t. Simpson doesn’t make any statements about the lessons for life he’s learned. If we can get some kind of inspiration, learn something from his story, it’s all on us to find out how.
In the end I think it’s this special quality of honesty- the lack of outspoken sentimentality and the refusal to please the audience and give them the show they expect – that makes the difference. This is what makes it stand out and take the step up from being an ordinary documentary about extraordinary experiences to be something that deserves attention and recognition outside of the circles of the dedicated armchair adventurers.
Touching the Void (Macdonald, UK, 2003) My rating: 4,5/5