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The Summit

25 Oct

Director: Nick Ryan (2012)

In August 2008, 18 climbers reached the top of K2, the second highest mountain on Earth yet perhaps the most technically brutal of the ‘eight-thousanders’ coveted by serious mountaineers each year. But only seven would make it safely back down the ‘Savage Mountain’. The truth about what happened on the mountain has long been shrouded in mystery, but Nick Ryan’s new documentary, The Summit, aims to shed new light on the tragic incident.

Receiving its world premiere at London Film Festival as part of the festival’s coveted ‘Documentary’ strand, The Summit is at once a beautiful and affecting account of the quiet but deadly battle between man and Mother Nature. A relative newcomer to feature films, Ryan’s directorial debut is one of great promise. Told through archive footage, talking heads and photographs found on the victim’s cameras alongside reconstructions, The Summit balances the intricacies of mountain climbing with the intricacies of the human condition in the face of pure nature, and essentially, death.

The enthusiasm and excitement of the climbers is invigorating, illustrating just why people endure what many of us would consider insane, namely embark on a journey to ‘the Death Zone’, the area above 8,000 metres when the body begins to shut down due to lack of oxygen. But their passion drove the climbers to overcome the risks and live their dream; and judging by the jubilant summit photos, adorned with their national flags and good luck mascots, the journey was worth every step.

However, in addition to be an homage to human perseverance and skill, The Summit is still a tale of human tragedy, given added pathos by the words of family members as they continue to search for the truth as to why their loved ones never made it home. Particular focus is given to Ger McDonnell, an amicable Irish climber – and first Irishman to summit K2 – and his close friend and climbing companion, Pemba Gyalje Sherpa. While Ger lost his life on K2, refusing to descend while he stayed to help others, Pemba survived and thankfully offers his voice as a beacon of truth amidst the rumours of what happened that day as climbers were left without their lifeline down the mountain after an avalanche cut their essential ropes.

Widely considered the worst mountaineering disaster in modern climbing history, such an honest documentary is well overdue. With stunning photography by Robbie Ryan and Ryan’s sympathetic yet balanced approach, The Summit places you on top of the world, trying to catch your breath as you witness the mountain’s great shadow over China and the awesome views only a few get to see for themselves. Only the breath you need can never be caught as you are plummeted to the base of K2, watching in horror as events unfold on the mountain above and then to the living rooms of the families awaiting the feared news.

Deeply moving and inspiring in equal measure, The Summit is a must-see for any documentary fan or anyone prepared to be humbled by human perseverance in the face of Mother Nature.

(Originally published on The London Word).


Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey

31 May

Director: Constance Marks (2011)

Kevin Clash – recognise the name? Most likely not. Elmo? Most definitely. As one of the world’s most popular children’s television characters, but also clearly a puppet with someone’s hand up its back, it seems strange that it is only now that this man’s name is finally coming into the public knowledge – thanks to Being Elmo. Premiering at Sundance in 2011, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey is an emotional documentary celebrating the man behind the red-furred wonder, Sesame Street’s Elmo.
Hailing from a poor family in Baltimore, Maryland, Kevin Clash has always been mesmerised by muppets, spending his childhood with his face pressed against the television watching his favourite characters before dedicating himself to creating his own, as perfect as those on the TV. But what separates Clash from other superfans is that his enthusiasm for the muppets he adored was not for personal gain but more to bring the same joy that enriched his life to others. Sound a little twee? It’s about furry puppets, why are you watching it if you don’t want a bit of heartwrenching?
Stitching his own puppets and putting on shows for the neighbourhood children soon enough caught the attention of the right people and not long into his teenage years Clash met Kevin Love and Jim Henson. And the rest is history.

There is something strange about seeing the veil so openly lifted to reveal the ‘real’ behind the imaginary worlds that entertained us all as children, but through this documentary we begin to understand the ways in which it’s not so much the characters that find the people but the people that make the characters.

Saving Elmo from the slush pile of Sesame Street characters, Clash singlehandedly created such a touching and affecting character that dying children want to meet him as their dying wish. You’re not going to get that with those Peppa Pigs or whatever the kids are watching these days. Watch, cry, and never feel guilty about wanting a tickle from Elmo.

Grizzly Man

25 Mar

Director: Werner Herzog (2005)

Oh Werner. With a voice like that, how on earth have you managed to make your name as one of the most profound documentary makers of the 21st century? And how have you managed to never play a Bond villain? In all seriousness, poor Werner get’s a lot of stick for his thick set German accent and so it pains me to have begun my review in such a standard way, but I defend my reasoning with the claim that it is these almost musical tones that make me fall in love with this man as much as I do with these documentaries.
Grizzly Man chronicles the life and work of Timothy Treadwell, a man so obsessed and dedicated to the grizzly bear that he spends the best part of each year living with them in Alaska, the aptly titled ‘Grizzly Maze’ in the Katmai National Park and Preserve. Why? Because Timothy Treadwell is perhaps the most enthusiastic and committed (possible committable) fighting the threats from poachers, not only by living amongst them but also in singlehandedly – and for no charge – spreading the word and educating children around the USA in the ways of the bear.
But this doesn’t stop us from asking the question ‘is this chap completely mad?’ It seems the only reasonable explanation as to why a person would choose to have himself planted in the middle of the nowhere for months at a time, knowing that every moment his life hangs on the edge in the presence of these essentially vicious wild animals. Perhaps this is a reductive way of looking at things, considering how Timothy clearly believes these animals are misunderstood and it is this lack of knowledge about grizzly bears that endangers them. Except that despite Timothy’s expert knowledge and personal relationship with these animals including giving them all names – in 2003, Timothy was brutally killed by his beloved grizzly bears. Along with his girlfriend Amie Huguenard.
Herzog speaks with many people involved in the vicious attack from the pilot who dropped them off for their summer adventure and later returned to an empty beach on the day he was due to collect them to the coroner who pieced together (literally) their dismembered bodies. The film is intercut with these talking heads with real footage Timothy filmed throughout his summers, interacting, talking and playing with the bears with such joy it is almost heartbreaking to think that it was these creatures that ended him. But, speaking with one of his friends, and former lover, Jewel Palovak, she explains that Timothy would rather die at the hands of these creatures than see them hurt. One of the most powerful moments is where Herzog reveals that when the incident happened, the camera was still rolling, thankfully with the lens cap on, but capturing the gruesome final moments in terrifying audio. The film shows Jewel watching Herzog listening to the tape. Taking off the headphones, he orders her to never ever listen to the tape, in fact, she should destroy it.
Grizzly Man is an incredibly powerful documentary, offering another more sympathetic side to the usual ‘he’s a mental what did he expect’ response to these kinds of incidents. Yes it wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been acting as he did but the matter is, it did happen and instead of chastising him as another crazy eccentric who got what he deserved, Herzog wants to remember Timothy’s legacy and honour the understanding of these animals we will never understand. Just like we will never know what happened in those final moments on that tape. Unlike Herzog.