Think about climbing films and Kevin MacDonald’s gripping and suspenseful documentary, Touching The Void, inevitably comes to mind. Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’s disastrous climb of the Siula Grande in the Cordillera Huayhuash mountain range in the Peruvian Andes is well known not for what happened on their ascent, but for the trouble they encountered on the way back down.
Touching The Void tells an incredible story of human endurance. The film’s power lies both in its remarkable true story (reenacted by Brendan Mackey as Simpson and Nicholas Aaron as Yates) and in how it prompts us, the audience, to ask what we would do if (in the thankfully unlikely event) we were in the climber’s shoes.
Meanwhile, Touching The Void also reminds us (in a way reminiscent of the films of Werner Herzog, who incidentally tried to acquire the book’s film rights) just how insignificant we are as humans amid nature’s most harsh and unforgiving landscapes.
In an article written for The Guardian newspaper (published in 2003), MacDonald explained just how challenging his documentary was to film.
“My nails were bleeding around the edges and seemed to be coming loose,” he recalled. “My face felt as though someone had rubbed it with a belt sander. My lips were split like a pair of overripe tomatoes. Every step I took left me gasping for breath. Filming at high altitude in the Peruvian Andes wasn't always (or even often) much fun.”
The freezing temperatures also impacted the film crew’s camera equipment - the cold made camera batteries run down and lenses ice over. “Directing a scene while roped to four other people dangling from the ice wall of a crevasse was also a novel experience,” added MacDonald.
The conditions were enough to make the director wonder why on earth he had decided to make a film about Simpson and Yates’s experience. However, when he read Simpson’s memoir he instinctively knew that he could turn this story into a compelling film.
What people most remember about Touching The Void is the terrible decision that Yates had to make. This moment turns Yates (then just 21 years old) from the undeniable hero of the tale to a potential antagonist.
Touching The Void is based on Simpson’s recollection of events and MacDonald’s film also predominantly focuses on his experience. Yates does not come off as well in the documentary - something (fairly or unfairly) the climber has had to live with ever since.
“As a story it has an almost mythological force,” MacDonald wrote in The Guardian. “It frightens you. It also confronts you with a number of moral conundrums and comparisons. Was Yates right to cut the rope? Why didn't he check to see if Simpson was dead? Would I have survived if I had been in the same situation as Simpson? Or would I have just curled up and died?
“But it also presents us with some big themes: the nature of forgiveness, the cold loneliness of a Godless universe and the consequent importance of human companionship, for all its flaws. Ultimately it is - to use that trite but accurate Hollywood phrase - a story about ‘the triumph of the human spirit’."
Many filmmakers had tried and later abandoned their efforts to turn Simpson’s story into a movie before MacDonald. The fact that the two climbers are separated for most of the event and the book is largely Simpson’s internal monologue proved to be an almost insurmountable obstacle.
MacDonald felt that the answer was to make a documentary. Both Simpson and Yates were prepared to be interviewed for his film. Meanwhile, in order to immerse his audience in the disastrous descent, the director realised that he needed to employ a series of dramatic reconstructions.
The use of this technique troubled MacDonald greatly. “In film, I believe things should either be documentary or drama,” he stated in his article. “If there is a tendency in modern television I hate, it is the unstoppable march of the dramatic reconstruction to tell the stories of anything from an ancient Egyptian battle to the early life of Paul Gascoigne.”
There is no doubt that dramatic reconstructions can pull you out of a documentary. Even MacDonald’s impressive commitment to authenticity (shooting in Peru accompanied by both Yates and Simpson) cannot prevent the “don’t worry, it’s only a movie” thoughts from intruding.
However, for the vast majority of Touching The Void’s running time, I feel as if I am right there with Simpson. Like so many climbing documentaries (including films such as Meru, Free Solo and Sherpa), it matters little if you know the outcome. Touching The Void is a masterclass in building cinematic tension and dread.
More Than A Documentary Film...
Of course, Touching The Void was much more than just a movie for Simpson and Yates. Their return with MacDonald to the location that changed both of their lives took its toll. MacDonald recalls that both men became upset during the recreation of the climbing scenes - calling the director irresponsible for asking climbers and crew members to journey even part way up the face of Siula Grande.
The impact of the event depicted in Touching The Void clearly (and understandably) still had a grip on both men. “The atmosphere became so poisonous and paranoid and mixed up that towards the end neither Simpson nor Yates was really talking to me,” wrote MacDonald. “They were caught up with their own private demons - which it seemed I was responsible for unleashing.”
Undeterred, MacDonald made the film that he set out to create. Simpson liked the way he was represented in Touching The Void, Yates did not. Indeed, he continued to refuse to speak to the director.
As a result, like Les Blank’s documentary, Burden Of Dreams, about the making of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, the story behind Touching The Void is almost as interesting and dramatic as that of Simpson and Yates’s disastrous mountain descent.
Climbing Documentary Recommendations
Touching The Void is part of the Climbing sub-genre of Documentary 7.
If you enjoyed this movie, I would also recommend:
Do you have any climbing documentaries that you would like to recommend? If so, do let us know in the comments section below or over on Twitter. You can find me @500DaysOfFilm.