> Volume 6 > Number 10


Kevin Macdonald

Joe Simpson
Simon Yates
Richard Hawking
Brendan Mackey
Nicholas Aaron

Release: 23 Jan. 04

Touching the Void


Very rarely do I get the sense that Iím watching a dramatic change from the status quo while watching a genre film, especially when the change comes with little or no predecessors. The Triplets of Belleville does this for animation, and The Matrix did it for action, but outside of those examples, the genres are mostly set in stone by now. Not so for documentaries, evidently, as the jaw-dropping Touching the Void makes clear. This is a film that presents documentary filmmaking as more than just talking heads and found footage. This is a narrative film that somehow has both of those elements of documentaries while never truly feeling like one (which sets it apart from the similar aesthetic of Unsolved Mysteries). Best of all, itís telling a story that deserves this level of innovation.

In 1985, experienced climbers Joe Simpson and Simon Yates become the first to climb the west face of Peruís 21,000-foot Siula Grande Mountain. While their experience climbing, and the reenactment director Kevin Macdonald give it, isnít quite as notable as such an achievement might mean to climbers, itís the return trek that makes this a story worth documenting. Simpson did just that in his book Touching the Void, which this film is based on, although he has said that his writing of the book was more to acquit Yates than to tell his own story of survival.

Giving away that Simpson lives through the end of Touching the Void isnít giving anything away -- he and Yates narrate most of the filmís reenactments, and their faces, withered through nearly 20 years getting over those days on the Siula Grande, appear on occasions. That Simpson does survive, as matters get worse for him, becomes a miracle to behold. This is a story of true grit and determination -- itís the type of story that Hollywood would get sour grapes for telling, because itís just unbelievable.

I wonít relate all that happens in hopes that this review might provoke readers to see this film without giving away any of its wonders (which isnít limited to its narrative -- the images Macdonald and cinematographer Mike Eley capture are awe-inspring). This is perhaps the greatest testament to the suicidal nature of mountain climbing and the cathartic reasoning behind it all. Touching the Void, climber or not, reminds us what it means to survive, and does so without ever becoming contrived like a Hollywood thriller. Rumor has it that this was long intended for a Tom Cruise vehicle -- can you imagine the pretty people climbing and praying, the ecstasy and the pathos? But that filmís already been made -- the nearly forgotten dud Vertical Limit -- and Touching the Void, as a docudrama hybrid remains as, perhaps, the only way to tell this story without reducing its power

©2004, David Perry,, 5 March 2004