An ordinary documentary about extraordinary circumstances
Should we feel sorry for the mountain climbers when an expedition ends up in death and disaster? I got into an argument about this the other night with a couple of fellow movie bloggers. My colleagues had very little sympathy for the climbers. “They risk their lives for what? They know what could happen and yet they go ahead. It’s their choice. There’s no reason to pity them”.
My protests against this came more from my heart than from reason and weren’t as poignant as I would have wished.
The thing is that my heart breaks a little whenever I read about a mountain accident. I guess that I feel that I owe those people something.
I’ve heard the arguments before: what good does it do the world to put all those resources into conquering mountaintops that maybe aren’t there to be conquered in the first place? Couldn’t those efforts be better used elsewhere? Isn’t it all just about vanity pulled so far that it gets lethal?
And I admit it: you don’t lessen the hunger for those who starve by climbing K2, you don’t cure diseases by landing on the moon or by painting a picture or composing a beautiful piece of music. But when ordinary people do extraordinary things in whichever area it is, when they overcome pain, doubts, fear, tiredness and other difficulties, they bring something else to the world.
Reading about the performances by mountain climbers is a constant source of inspiration for me in my own everyday life and has been that for years. If my own life situation feels so-and-so, I can think about Joe Simpson crawling back to the camp after the disaster on the mountain, as told in Touching the Void. And every time I do so, I’m reminded of that a) I’m not that bad off at all and b) if I don’t like to be in the place I’m currently in, I can do something about it. I just need to set my mind to it. Human beings are capable of so much more than we imagine.
As the adventurers push the limits of what a human is capable to do, they also raise the bar for the rest of us. I have many reasons to be thankful and showing them some pity and mercy in return as disaster strikes is the least thing I can do.
Events at K2
The film that sparked this discussion was The Summit, a documentary about what happened at K2 in 2008, when 11 people died within 48 hours, as a result of some bad decisions in combination with bad luck.
Unfortunately this film isn’t the best I’ve seen in the genre. Perhaps it’s the size of the tragedy that makes it hard to explain it so that people who weren’t there to understand it. The film shows the perspective of several different climbers, jumping back and forward in time, moving between different spots on the mountain where different parties were fighting for their survival. It gets pretty messy after a while and as you’re losing track of the events, it becomes harder to fully engage with them. They probably would have made wiser focusing on fewer of the people involved.
Towards the end the documentary starts to raise questions about the reliability of the testimonies from the disaster. With the media situation today, news spread fast and the climbers are aware of how their actions will be judged by the public audience. Apart from being experts in climbing they need to be experts in media handling. Some do it better than others and the world will be left with a whole bunch of more or less differing stories about what happened on the mountain. If there even is such a thing as a “truth”, we’re not likely to get it. Only more or less well founded guesses, versions to believe or not believe. Questions are raised but not quite answered and it feels as if there are more layers and territories, deeper and darker, than we get to see in The Summit.
To wrap it up: if you like me nourish a special interest for those matters, you probably want to watch The Summit, just to get a picture – if messy – of the events at K2. But if your interest in mountaineering and the handling of accidents in mountains is lukewarm, I’d rather recommend other films, such Touching the Void, which manages to raise to an existential level where this doesn’t go.
The Summit (Nick Ryan, 2012) My rating: 3/5