Touching the Void, 2003, UK
Touching the Void is a documentary about Joe Simpson and Simon Yates’ 1985 climb of the Siula Grande in Peru. During the descent, Joe was injured, and eventually Simon was forced to make a terrible decision. The film uses interviews with both Yates and Simpson, as well as Richard Hawking, who remained at base camp, and re-enactments to tell the story of how they survived.
Documentaries that use re-enactment footage don’t often sit well with me. I find that the re-enactments are poorly acted, and make the documentary feel artificial. I strongly prefer archived footage, contemporary footage and the use of pictures to tell a story. Touching the Void feels no less real, despite the fact that the story was told through re-enactments with professional actors. The acting was excellent (Brendan Mackey was especially good as Simpson), and the quality of the make-up, and cinematography were equal to that of any feature film. I truly felt like I was watching and edge-of-your seat thriller, and I was genuinely concerned for Simpson’s well-being, despite the fact that he was narrating his own story! This was easily the best use of re-enactments in a documentary that I have ever seen. It was just wonderfully done.
Director Kevin Macdonald was wise to let Yates and Simpson tell their own stories. There’s no outside narration, and the actors themselves have very little dialogue. Instead, the story is told through narration garnered from extensive interviews with Yates, Simpson, and Hawking. It added an extra touch to hear the story told in their own words. They’re both good speakers, and they are very straightforward and blunt about their experiences. It helps that the documentary was made almost 20 years after it happened – they’ve had a chance to process what happened and make peace with it in a way. They even acted as themselves in some of the mountain climbing scenes that were shot from afar.
Throughout the film there is a sense of tension and dread. It’s really a frightening story, and a warning not to underestimate the power of nature. There’s a controversial action that happens on the mountain that many people have mixed feelings on. I won’t reveal what it is, but many feel strongly one way or another. It’s an action that is well-explained and defended in the documentary.
Touching the Void was an excellent, if stressful watch. It is available to rent through Netflix.