|Touching the Void
2004 - unrated - 106 Mins.
|Director: Kevin Macdonald
|Producer: John Smithson
|Written By: Joe Simpson
|Starring: Nicholas Aaron, Brendan Mackey, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates
|Review by: Bill King
A camera crew did not follow Joe Simpson and Simon Yates up and down the west face of the Siula Grande (in the Peruvian Andes) in 1985, yet "Touching the Void" is every bit as compelling as the real thing. Their story has become legendary in the sport of mountain climbing, or so the opening caption tells us. During that extraordinary week in 1985, the two men scaled the enormous mountain. That was a difficult feat alone, since the mountain has many vertical planes and the wind chill factor goes well below zero degrees. Going back down proved even more difficult.
I can't go any further. There's yellow snow ahead.
Joe Simpson and Simon Yates speak throughout the film, giving us detailed information on what happened to them. At the same time, director Kevin Macdonald recreated the perilous climb using actors Nicholas Aaron and Brendan Mackey. As the real mountain climbers discuss their ordeal, we see the re-enactment taking place in front of us. A rope connects the two men as they descend the steep cliffs. Joe breaks his leg on the way down, driving his shin bone right up through his knee joint. Slowly, Simon and Joe make their way down, but Joe slips and falls over the edge. After an hour, Simon has no idea what happened to Joe, since he is out of sight. He cannot stay in his position for long. He begins to slip, so with no choice, he cuts the rope. He didn't know that Joe was hanging over the edge, with a deep crevice just below him.
Most of the film tells us about Joe's lonely descent. Tired, dehydrated, freezing and with broken leg, Joe sits at the bottom of the chasm with no way up. Simon thinks Joe is dead, so he continues down the mountain where a colleague has set up camp. Joe has used up all his fuel, which was used for melting the ice into water. With only a few tools at his disposal, Joe makes an unthinkable decision. He lowers himself deeper into the crevice, with no idea how far down it goes.
"Touching the Void" is a remarkable story about survival. It doesn't matter that we're watching a recreation of the events. Joe's narration provides all the information we need. He describes the pain in his leg, how his resources were running out, how the long trip to the bottom was an endurance test most people couldn't survive. His face is covered with sweat and blood. His strength was draining from his body. We associate those words with the action onscreen, and that combination draws us into the predicament. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the mountain, Simon waits in vain. Unwilling to abandon his friend, he waits in a sort of vigil, hoping Joe can make it back down if he's still alive.
Joe Simon wrote a book about those seven days. In the end, he lost one-third of his body weight and required six surgeries. The film is a triumphant display of the human body's ability to withstand extreme conditions. Hungry, exhausted and morally battered, Joe Simon persevered nonetheless. His spirit was too strong to keep down. "Touching the Void" is a documentary that doesn't simply inform us of past events. It involves us in the dilemma. Rather than remain as outside observers, we sometimes feel trapped in that crevice along with him. This is more than a documentary; it's a nerve-wracking quest for survival.