Extreme Film: Physical Feats of Endurance
The relationship between sport and cinema has always been an interesting one, countless films have managed to evoke the extraordinary willpower and stamina of professional athletes. However it is the real life accounts of everyday people who push their bodies to extremes in the name of adventure, athleticism and adrenalin that make the most indelible impression. Volta spoke to the founder of the Wee Adventure Film Festival about people's enthusiasm for extreme sports and we look at some oft he most interesting cinematic examples on the subject.
What exactly inspires ordinary people to take on these extraordinary challenges, often risking life and limb in the process? Does the achievement really outweigh the potential danger? To gain some insight Volta turned to outdoor sports enthusiast and Wee Adventure Film Festival founder John Connolly. The event, which showcases extreme sport on screen, features the work of both amateur and professional film makers from around the world. The 5th annual festival took place at earlier this year at Dublin’s Vicar Street. John attributes the festival’s growing popularity to the enthusiasm of both the adventure sports community and the general public;
‘The aim of the festival is to inspire the audience, the film makers and all involved. It’s been running for five years now and in that time we have received over 100 short adventure films from around the world. We have screened a fantastic and diverse range of film with everything from BASE Jumping to paddling down the crocodile invested Nile, to mountain biking in Squamish and Belfast, and Skiing in Wicklow’.
An avid climber, biker and mountaineer, the idea for a short film festival dedicated to extreme sport first occurred to Connolly in 2007;
‘My friends, like myself, are interested in Climbing, Biking, Skiing, Surfing and Mountaineering. I thought it would be great to get out over the summer and make some films of us doing our thing, and then at the end of the summer we would all come together and watch the films that we had made. The more friends I told the more positivity I got back so I decided to set up the festival to allow other adventurers to come together, and to create an opportunity for amateur film makers to get their films on the big screen. At the first WAFF in February 2008, we received 19 film submissions from around the world, only one of which was from a friend, so we decided to run it again the following year’
In keeping with the inspirational examples above, Connolly believes that the challenges faced by athletes and adventurers alike are mental as much as physical, and puts the strange pull of extreme sport down to a number of factors;
‘On a rock climb I may be physically able to do it but if my brain says no there is no way my body will make that move. For me the draw is a combination of the thrill of hurtling down a hill on a bike or that complete sense of being in the moment on a rock climb. I’m not completely sure why people jump off cliffs with wingsuits. It looks amazing to be out there effectively flying, so maybe it is something to do with getting out of your ordinary life and pushing your limits and seeking peace in the moment’.
As for the appeal of films that document incredible feats of endurance or strength….
‘There is such a wide range of adventure sports out there now. For many people it is their first time seeing a particular sport, especially something like BASE jumping. They are in awe that someone will jump off a cliff. They see the happiness and satisfaction of the people who are out there taking part in these activities but also the disasters like what happened in Touching the Void. The impression that is left by these films can be one of inspiration or of fear, or sometimes a combination of both. In all the films above and the WAFF films there is a very strong belief that the subject can do whatever they put their minds too, whether it be scaling a mountain, braving the Atlantic Ocean or running in a village in Ethiopia. There is a strength of mind about it that captures the audience and in some cases inspires them to get out and try something themselves’.
There have been a number of really fascinating documentaries on this subject in recent years, such as:
Big River Man follows pot bellied Slovenian native Martin Strel in his attempt to swim the length of the Amazon River, an epic 3,375 miles painstakingly covered over 66 days. A true oddity in every sense of the word, Strel is the type of character Werner Herzog might befriend. Though a successful endurance swimmer with several world record titles under his belt, he does little or no preparation for his swims and gets through at least two bottles of red wine a day, and a couple of horse burgers. It’s an astonishing feat, and one that unsurprisingly pushes Strel to the brink of insanity.
Over the course of the swim he endures a barrage of torments, all relayed by his exasperated son who accompanies him on his swims. Director John Maringouin’s documentary may take this extraordinary physical challenge as its framework, but his interest in the unwavering strength of the human spirit is never far from the fore. What exactly compels someone to take on the world’s deadliest stretches of water and all of the risk it entails? Strel claims his swims highlight the frailty of the environment but his true motives are uncertain.
Some of the world's best long-distance runners hail from a remote highland town inEthiopiacalled Bekoji. In Town of Runners, director Jerry Rothwell travels to the titular town that has exported 8 Olympic gold medallists to date. Filmed over 4 years, Rothwell follows the prospects of three young athletes hoping to follow in their idols’ footsteps. They are put through their paces by Sentayehu Eshetu, a local PE teacher.
Training begins daily at dawn when a group of 200 prospective runners take on a punishing circuit of the surrounding terrain. Having previously documented Donald Crowhurst's unsuccessful 1968 voyage in a round the world yacht race, Rothwell has an obvious attachment to those who put their body’s perceived limitations to the ultimate test, and both films make for fascinating viewing. Rothwell may not get to the bottom of what makes this particular town so special but what does emerge is how closely the body and mind are linked and the immeasurable effect that one has on the other.
Comparisons have been drawn to Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book Born to Run, which investigates a tribe of ultra runners who live in the Copper Canyons in Chihuahua,Mexico. The book relates their almost super human strength and bizarre rituals, like their tendency to celebrate late into the night before taking on a gruelling 50 mile barefoot run. Rumours of a possible film adaptation have yet to be confirmed.
Touching the Void
The harrowing experiences of Simon Yates and Joe Simpson are a fitting example, chillingly documented by Kevin MacDonald in Touching the Void. Both seasoned climbers, they were attempting a particularly perilous descent of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes when an already injured Simpson plunged down the mountain into an overhang. Yates, still attached to his friend by a rope, is faced with an unenviable decision: cut him loose or stay, which would mean certain death for both. Yates returns to base camp alone and distraught. His decision to sever the cord has been widely criticised by the climbing community. However, here the story takes a life affirming twist. Simpson survived the fall and despite suffering a shattered leg manages to crawl for miles to safety, all the while plagued by hallucinations and Boney M music.
Recalling the 1985 events for MacDonald’s film was a deeply unsettling experience for both men. Yates has kept a cautious distance from the production following an emotional reunion with Simpson at the site of the accident. Simpson has always defended Yates’ choice and bizarrely credits him with saving his life. The situation is reminiscent of recent Danny Boyle outing 127 Hours, the true story of Aron Ralston who was forced to sever his own arm following a horrific climbing accident. Boyle is said to have taken inspiration from MacDonald’s film, particularly during the hallucination sequences.
Showered with accolades at film festivals around the world, Lucy Walker’s documentary Blindsight captures one of the most impressive displays of physical and mental strength in recent memory, following the efforts of 6 Tibetan teenagers as they scale the neighbor of the world’s most ominous peak, 23,000 foot Lhakpa Ri on the north side of Mount Everest. What makes the film truly unique however is its brave subjects, all of whom are blind. Inspired by the story of Erik Weihenmayer, a blind mountaineer who conquered Everest, the teenagers set out on a similar 3 week expedition. Over the course of the film they struggle admirably against the treacherous terrain, unforgiving climate and the discriminatory superstitions of the local people, who believe them to be cursed. The climbers are supported and encouraged by their mentor, German native Sabriye Tenberken, also blind and an adventure sport devotee, who established the first school for the visually impaired inLhasa.Walker’s film not only highlights that distinctive human determination to succeed, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, it also makes some valid points about the preconceptions surrounding physical disabilities.