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Touching the Void - Docudrama Review

About an hour into this docudrama, we see Joe, a mountaineer trapped into a crevasse in Siula Grande, a peak in the Andes range in Peru. After scaling the peak, on his descent, he falls down and breaks his fibula. The fracture is so bad that on the impact of the fall, the fibula drives past his knee cap and jams with his thigh bone. So, with this broken leg, he looks down the crevasse and he can't figure out the depth, because it's so dark and he can't climb up because his fingers are numb and he hadn't eaten anything but snow in the past two days, he thinks about god. Brought up as a devout Catholic, even the very idea/thought of turning to god in such troubled times doesn't cross his mind and he starts descending into the crevasse with a rope whose end is not knotted, so that when he gets to the end of the rope and if the crevasse still goes deep, he would just fall and it would be a quick death.

Watching this docudrama is a moving experience; it's one of those films which triggers discussions about courage and spirit and life and death and god and will. Two English mountaineers - Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, both in their twenties decide to scale the west face of the Siula Grande in the Andes just because one of their friends told them it would be a "challenging day out" Until then nobody has climbed up the west face, and that fact fires up these two guys who think climbing is "brilliant fun" and "makes you more alive" They both decide to climb the Alpine style - which is the purists style of climbing where there are not intermediate campsites and it's physically extremely challenging not to mention the high risk involved.

They start climbing with a rope tied to each other, meaning one guy has complete trust in the other (since they're ascending a very steep face, the fall of one guy could bring the other guy down). They weather very bad weather: it takes almost an hour to melt snow into two cups of water. And because of such extreme conditions they run out of fuel for their stove when they reach the top. Though they have a sense of accomplishment, they both know that their adventure isn't over until they touch their basecamp and 80% of the accidents happen on the descent. They start descending with great caution.

At one point, the clouds just completely surround them withholding a shred of light for them to decide on their course. When the clouds give way, Joe decides to take steps with what little light he has - because they're already out of fuel and they want to get down as soon as possible. What Joe thinks as solid ice ground turns out to be a cornice and gives way under his weight and falls with such a bang that he breaks his right fibula which travels past his kneecap. It's a fracture of enormous proportions for a mountaineer and it sounds death bells because there is no air-lift rescue in that part of the country.

Simon decides a one-man rescue, which Joe later recounts as an extraordinary feat under those circumstances. They have two 150-feet 8.8mm rope using which Simon decides to descend Joe in 300 feet installments upon which he would receive a signal when Joe would loosen up the rope, and allow for Simon to join him. One of their fatal descends directly led to a small cliff which opened upto a deep crevasse at it's base, which left Joe hanging in mid-air. Joe keeps shouting to pull him up, while Simon wonders what takes Joe so long to release the rope. Minutes feels like ages - inclement weather, severely dehydrated, physically extremely dog tired, Simon cuts off the rope, which is Joe's lifeline and starts walking down. Joe falls into the crevasse and starts counting his hours.

What's so extraordinary about this tale is Joe's will to stay alive. He gives death a run for it's money to catch up with him. He faces death at many points during his descent and he just avoids relenting and sets himself small goals: he targets a rock or a corner or a point and decides to get there, crawling on his stomach, in twenty minutes time. If he made it in time, he would joyously yell; else, he cried. He repeated this when death was just around the corner, waiting for him give in. He just refused to budge and made his whole world revolve around achieving his interim goal of reaching his destination, which usually was only a few feet away from his starting point.

The audience know that Joe is alive, because he's narrating what happened and how he felt. In spite of that, Kevin Macdonald, the director of this docudrama offers genuine thrilling moments, getting us to the edge of the seat and making us wonder if Joe will make it alive. Many criticised Simon for cutting the rope and walking his way: but Joe himself staunchly defended Simon's decision saying that had it been Joe's choice, he would have cut the rope too. Makes us think how sane one could be in making life determining decisions when one's physically squeezed out.

When Joe finally reaches the ground level, he feels that he's nobody. As if he had no feelings and there was no objective in his life but just to keep living. He conveys a strong voidness in him. Sometimes, we talk and act with a strong ego as if we have a permanent citizenship in this planet. If there's a noble message in this film, I think it is: all our accomplishments are fragile and ego just adds fuel to the delusional world we create. But I don't want to pull my own perceptions out of this great piece of work and impregnate them on you. There are many wonderful things to say about this docudrama: great photography, wonderful music, crafty editing, subtle direction, there's no manipulation of our emotions, etc. Let me just say that I highly recommend this film. Period.

3 Responses to “Touching the Void - Docudrama Review”

  1. # Anonymous Sharada

    This is an amazing story of courage, friendship, the power of the mind and the human will to live! Here are a few random facts and thoughts about the film.

    1. Touching the Void, the book, authored by Joe Simpson was published in 1988, 3 years after the ordeal. Joe says he wrote the book primarily to defend Simon from the harsh criticism he was facing for cutting the rope.

    2. Stuck deep in the crevasse with a badly broken leg, Joe has two choices. Just wait there for help that's not going to come or venture further down the unfathomable crevasse. Joe says he went by the motto he lived by - "You've got to keep making decisions, even if they are bad decisions"

    3. At times, the honesty of the narrators is shocking. 15 years after the event, this is what Simon has to say about what he felt when Joe said he'd broken his leg.

    Simon Yates: Immediately, just doom really I thought, Oh, God, we’re stuffed, we’re going to be doing well if either of us get out of this now. It did come into my mind just thinking, if he slips off the side of the mountain now then I can just clear off and leave him and get myself down, and I won’t have to have all the hassle of trying to deal with him and with the situation we’re in.

    4. During the recent trekking expedition at Savandurga, the president of the Karnataka Mountaineering Association addressed us and gave us a primer on mountaineering gear and what mountaineering was all about in general. He said the popular mountaineering blockbusters like Cliffhanger do not give a realistic picture of mountaineering. Here's Joe's take.

    Another bonus, he adds, is that the psychologically realistic documentary style of Touching the Void may bring advocates of popular mountaineering blockbusters such as Cliffhanger and Vertical Limit down to earth. From the lips of a man who's been there and back, they are absolute drivel. "You just can't have sex at twenty thousand feet" he concludes with a grin.

    5. It feels kind of funny to think that a few days back we'd climbed a 1300 foot high hillock and thought we had done something  

  2. # Blogger vandu

    For those of us, who didnt know there was a beautiful story we had missed to watch, you gave us an enlightment! Thanks for adding color to a few minutes of my life! :-)  

  3. # Blogger Prasad Venkataramana

    I'm glad that I was able to point out this film to you.  

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