Based on a true story, Touching The Void delivers an extraordinary tale of human survival, with breathtaking re-enactment that packs emotional punch.
In 1985, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates attempted to climb the west face of the Siula Grande - a 6.3km ascent that had never yet been completed. The pair climbed alpine style; this meant no camps halfway up, and no more equipment than the two of them could carry. Joe admits, in hindsight, they were a bit stupid.
Touching the void is a 2003 documentary based on the book by Joe Simpson, detailing their climb, and almost fatal descent. The film uses talking heads (that is, interviews with the climbers themselves), along with performed re-enactments filmed on location at the slope, to convey their struggle to survive, and the brutal decisions each had to make.
The practicality of the re-enactments really shows - the mountainside is beautiful, and scenes of ice and snow are aglow with both a sense of wonder, and menace. The film takes you into the mind of the climber; their absolute love of climbing, desire to conquer nature, the terrifying heights that pump the blood with addictive adrenaline. Their every move is fraught with peril, effectively conveyed with their own commentary over the performed footage.
The climb does not go peachy; as they start their descent, Joe breaks his leg. In climbing circles, it's pretty much a death sentence - especially on a slope so unpredictable as this one. It's a bit of a giveaway when we see both Joe and Simon recounting their tale; obviously neither one can die. And yet, the film draws as much tension as it can through the way that its told; it challenges the viewer to put themselves in the climbers position: would you cut the rope on your partner?
There's a brutal honesty about Joe and Simons commentary. At one perilous point, Joe says, there was nothing going through his mind but a song; Brown Girl In The Ring. "Bloody hell," he complains, "I'm going to die to Boney M."
Then there are the serious moments. Like when Joe is trapped in a glacier, staring into the darkness and feels... nothing. Is that what it feels like to be on the brink of death? To touch the void? And yet he steps into the darkness, and it leads him into the light. This was not Joes time to die, although I'm sure he had no doubts that it was.
The film, and its subjects, shy away from nothing when it comes to dealing with death, isolation, young stupidity, and the struggle to survive. Joes ordeal is gruelling, but ultimately uplifting, and this film is a testament to his experience.
There's maybe one problem I have with it, and that's that it is hard to decipher how Joe and Simon feel about each other now. They have each since defended the others actions on the mountainside, and apparently they were both on set for the filming of the re-enactments, but they never appear together in the interview room, and they never directly express how they feel today. Just something I'd be curious about, but this film deals with what happens in the moment, and it does that with fantastic effect.