Touching the Void is considered as the greatest PBS’s (Public broadcast service) 100 Documentaries of all time. This documentary was made in 2003, based on the book of the same name by Joe Simpson about his expedition with his mountaineer partner Simon Yates,’ disastrous and near fatal attempt to climb Siula Grande (6,344m) in the Cordillera Huayhuash in the Peruvian Andes in 1985.
We know that documentaries sometimes can be stunning as visual features and Touching the Void’ is a classic true depiction directed by Kevin McDonald. He uses interviews with the three central players as narrative over a faithful enactment of the events as they happened. Convinced to the sanity and risk, this was filmed in the Peruvian Andes where the events took place twenty years before, creating something more like The Blair Witch Project than a traditional documentary. The perseverance to accurately portraying the entire expedition makes it an interesting movie even beyond the central story, as you learn a lot about the tools and tricks of mountaineering, while watching Simpson’s struggle to get back to civilization. Details like these make you feel like you’re watching the actual events as they unfold.
In 1985, two adventurous young mountaineers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, set off to climb the treacherous Peruvian Andes. Both the mountaineers reach the summit of the previously unclimbed West Face of Siula Grande in Peru. That’s the ‘Alpine-style,’ climbing the mountain in ‘one great push,’ without setting up ropes or base camps ahead of time. After dealing with a snowstorm and some dangerous climbing, they reached the summit (about 21,000 feet) on the third day. The climb down proved to be far more difficult.
Joe is injured during the descent after falling, resulting in a badly broken leg. The pair decides to lower Joe with the help of ropes on the steep snowy slope, while an enormous storm rages on. The climbers run out of gas to melt snow, so they couldn’t risk stopping as night come, and a violent snowstorm begin as their tedious, painful journey hit a snag when Simon unintentionally lower Joe over the edge of a cliff and Joe eventually drops off and is suspended by the rope in mid-air. Simon arrests his fall, but does not see the predicament his partner is in nor hear him because of the severity of the storm.
In the nervous storm, the men couldn’t hear each other’s cries, and, after about an hour, Simon realizes that there is little chance of recovery from this situation for either of them and he makes the decision to cut Joe’s rope. After surviving a subzero and stormy night on the mountain, Simon descends, but cannot find his partner. He decides his partner is dead, and returns to the base camp alone, where he stays to recover.
Inexplicably Joe plunging to certain death, survive the fall into a large fracture, manages to lower himself further into the dark abyss off the mountain alone with no food, no water. In spite of his broken leg, he confronts the severe torment, and finds an exit leading to the base of the mountain. He then spends days crawling across glacier and rocks with his broken leg and other injuries. Just as ecstatic, he finds the climbers’ base camp the night as he crawls before the day in which Simon decide to leave.
While documentaries aren’t usually reserved for their skills of acting and the performances, and here Touching the Void, looks so real and yet documented so near perfect in this touching story telling of the incidents by Joe Simpson. Brendan Mackey’s portrayal of Simpson, despite barely speaking in the movie, is remarkable. You feel every piece of his pain and anguish as he relives the incident, crawling and hopping back down the mountain over the course of the four days. The loneliness and desperation ultimately drives him into madness and despair, and McDonald uses interesting techniques to make Simpson’s dire situation seem more real.
The filmmaker Kevin Macdonald tells their story, based on Simpson’s book, using contemporary interviews with these two men, and a reenactment of their climb and descent, featuring Brendan Mackey as Simpson and Nicholas Aaron as Yates. It’s few and far between, the story made up of descriptive passages and you see the those little conversation between the actors which are lost in the wind and the adventure at the helm in the Andes, and how the occurrence go down so horribly and to heat up. The three main players are frank in their interviews, going into detail about how they were feeling at the time.
Two decades later, the psychological effects are still felt by both men to the point where they are eloquent and forthright, especially the unadulterated guilt that Yates feels for cutting the rope, possibly being responsible for the death of his friend. That Simpson managed to survive the ordeal is amazing enough, but the fact that he and Yates reconciled and remained friends for so much time afterwards makes the film even more moving. During the making of the film, the director and producers invited Simon Yates and Joe Simpson to return to Siula Grande in 2002 for the first time since the events of 1985. Simpson, despite finding the return emotionally difficult and experiencing post-traumatic stress syndrome on his return, eventually said that he was happy with the film and its portrayal of the events. Yates, on the other hand, reported having no emotional response to returning to Siula Grande, and decided to have nothing to do with the film once he had returned from the mountain
According to the film’s end notes Yates received much criticism from some mountaineers for cutting the rope during the descent after the story of what happened to Simpson and Yates returned to England. Simpson has deeply accepted that Yates did the right thing and practically saved his life, and has always defended him on that matter
Touching the Void is a heartfelt movie, and all credits to Kevin MacDonald. It’s not surprising that his profile includes a film portrait of Errol Morris, director of the Oscar nominated documentary, The Fog of War. He has clearly learned a lot from Errol, with his magnificent images combined with the perfect blend of music and sound effects to make you feel that you are right there with Joe Simpson and Simon Yates.
Yes this is a sure film for any adventurers, especially who likes the pure adrenalin and perilous world of mountain climbing. Not only is Simpson’s story a remarkable one worthy of documenting, besides makes for a pioneering accomplishment and master craft filming of a rare textual into a stimulating visual movie with many such sweeping shots across the picturesque Peruvian Andes in its completely bare posturing and burst of humanness……… A perfect documentary in the long time
- Directed by Kevin MacDonald
- Produced by John Smithson
- Casting: Brendan Mackey; Nicholas Aaron & Ollie Ryall
- Distributed by Pathé
- Release date: 5 September 2003 (TIFF)
- Run time of 106 minutes
- Country: UK
- Language: English