In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, two mountain climbing friends, attempted to climb the west face of the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes. After making it to the summit, Simpson broke his leg on their descent and in a life-or-death moment, Yates was forced to cut the rope between them to avoid going over the edge himself. Thinking Simpson dead, Yates headed back down, without realizing that Simpson was trapped in an ice crevasse. Touching the Void chronicles the incident, and Simpson’s grueling trek to make it back down the mountain on his own.
When you think of documentaries, you often think of dry picture albums with narration and interviews. Touching the Void is something notably different, as it’s more like a Discovery Channel special with higher production values. Director Kevin MacDonald uses interviews with the three central players as narrative over a faithful reenactment of the events as they happened. To add to the realism and danger, he filmed the movie 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 dedication to realistically 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.
While documentaries aren’t usually earmarked for their acting performances, this is one of the main differences between Touching the Void and other documentaries. Besides a moving retelling of the incidents by Simpson himself, Brendan Mackey’s portrayal of Simpson, despite barely speaking in the movie, is remarkable. You feel every ounce 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.
Although there is very little dialogue between the actors, the narrative, presumably taken from Joe Simpson’s book, is made up of descriptive passages about the Andes and how the incident went down. 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.
McDonald is a very talented filmmaker, and it’s not surprising that his resume includes a film portrait of Errol Morris, director of the Oscar nominated documentary, The Fog of War. He has clearly learned a lot from the master, creating an interesting visual movie with many sweeping shots across the picturesque Peruvian Andes. These stirring shots are combined with the perfect blend of music and sound effects to make you feel that you are right there with Simpson and Yates.
Touching the Void is a riveting film filled with mounting tension that grows as one is pulled into the dangerous world of mountain climbing. Not only is Simpson’s story a memorable one worthy of documenting, but it also makes for a groundbreaking achievement in filmmaking. A rare documentary that is completely devoid of pretensions, Touching the Void is also one of the first perfect movies of the year.
Touching the Void is now open in select cities.