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Archive for the ‘Touching the Void’ Category

An ordinary documentary about extraordinary circumstances

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thesummitShould 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

Written by Jessica

November 4, 2013 at 1:00 am

A note from the management and my top five mountain and trekking movies

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Dear customers! Dear friends, guests, readers, writers and commenters! Dear cinephiles!

It’s time for me to leave the protective darkness in the theatre and head out in the real world for a little while. During my vacation there will be very little activity here. There might be some occasional stray post that I’ve prepared, but mostly it will be quiet.

My plan for the next week is to go trekking in the Swedish mountains. So I came up with the idea to make a list post, presenting five of my favorite movies about  favourite movies about trekking, climbing and survival in the mountains.

Are you ready? Here we go!


This film is based on the true story about a rugby who crashed with an airplane in the middle of the Andes Mountains and what the few survivors went through until they finally were rescued. I read the book as a teenager, not once but several times. I don’t think it was the fact that they ended up eating from the dead bodies to survive that tickled me. It was more about the entire situation, the group dynamics and the spiritual development they went through. At two hours the film could never be as detailed as the book, but it was still a very good one.

Into the Wild
It’s often considered a matter of fact that a film that is based on a book never can be as good as the original source, provided that you read the book first. It may be true in many cases, but not for Into the Wild. I read Krakauer’s book about Christopher McCandless escape into the wilderness long before I watched the film, but while the book was OK, it couldn’t match the film in terms of being emotionally engaging. If it’s closer to the truth or not I obviously can’t say. But it has stunningly beautiful cinematography, great acting performances and a soundtrack by Eddie Vedder that I never get tired of listening to.

Touching the Void
I think I’ve read Joe Simpson’s book Touching the Void at least three times and I’ll probably read it a few more times during my lifetime. It’s more than just a survival story; he’s an extraordinary good writer as well. I already knew every step and turn he took on his way back to the camp after his partner had been forced to cut the rope due to an accident. But it’s one thing to just read the words and another thing to see the actual places on screen. The documentary was excellent.

127 Hours
The idea to make an entire movie about a guy who was stuck with his arm under a rock sounds a bit crazy. It’s not exactly cinematic. How long would it take before the viewers start to scratch themselves? But despite the challenge or maybe because of it, Danny Boyle wanted to do this. As with the rest of the survival movies, I had already read the book and like everyone else I knew how the film would end before I started to watch it. And yet I was on my edge all way through. Danny Boyle sure pulled this one off, and so did James Franco, who is excellent in the role as the climber.

The Way Back
This film begins with an escape from a camp under Stalin’s terror regime in Siberia, but after a while the bad guys tune out and it turns into a story about man vs nature as the prisoners continue on their quest to cross deserts and mountains to their destination in India. Considering the scale of it and the multitude of magnificent landscape views, I wish I had seen it in a theatre.

A source of inspiration
There’s my selection of mountain themed movies and I realize that it probably looks a bit nutty. So much darkness, misery, death and disease! How can anyone possibly get inspired to head out for trekking in the mountains after watching those films? If they have any message, it would be that you’re safer and more comfortable if you stay at home.

Buy on some level I think they give me some kind of fuel: a spark to try really hard and not give up at whatever – I’m sure – comparatively minor obstacle I might encounter during my week away.

If I get tired of the dried food I can always think that I’ve got plenty to eat compared to what they had in Alive.

If I’ll need to take off my trousers crossing a river, walking through freezing cold water, I still know that I will be able to cross it unlike what happened in Into the Wild.

If I’m unlucky and make a slip step I might hurt my wrist, but medical help will never be further away than 20 kilometres and if I break my leg someone will pick me up. I won’t have to crawl on the ground for long stretches, like Joe in Touching the Void did.

I’m in company and people know where I am. If the unlikely event would happen that all of us would get stuck under a rock, there would be people who would go looking for us.  We wouldn’t be on our own as in 127 hours. There’s no overhanging risk that I would have to cut off my own arm.

And while the way probably will feel very long at times, it’s laughable compared to the stretches covered in The Way Back.

The weather forecast says it will rain for a week, with outdoor temperatures just above the freezing point. But as soon as I think back to any of those five movies, my small nuggets of discomfort will be put into proportion. And that’s why they’re so inspirational.

And now it’s time to say goodbye. Don’t be shy while I’m gone. Help yourself! Check the fridge for leftovers and the archives for blog posts you may have missed. Have a drink in the bar and a comfortable seat and I’ll be back in no time.

See you! Cheers!


Written by Jessica

July 13, 2012 at 5:00 pm

A Dark and Honest Survival Story

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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

Written by Jessica

July 20, 2011 at 11:28 am

Posted in Touching the Void