Docudrama. It’s one of those synthetic compound words that inspires visions of advertising executives and People magazine writers in white lab coats, operating levers and pulleys and electric current in a dark laboratory, creating unholy new methods of expression until William Safire kicks down the door and beats up everybody.
And just like infotainment, it’s easy to distrust docudramas simply because of their elements: documentary storytelling combined with reenactments or fictionalizations of real events. Usually, such combinations either signal laziness—the filmmakers couldn’t make the real thing compelling on their own—or excess, such as the jam sessions needlessly added to the otherwise wonderful Standing in the Shadows of Motown in 2002.
It’s easy to mess up a good thing by yielding to the temptation, and few filmmakers have been able to add drama to documentary successfully. The best so far is director Kevin Macdonald, who blends interviews and reenactments with incredible dexterity in Touching the Void, a harrowing true story of two British mountain climbers who barely escaped a forbidding Peruvian peak with their lives in 1985.
The story of Joe Simpson and Simon Yates has already been recounted in Simpson’s best-selling book of the same name and, as the film states early on, their misadventure is now the stuff of mountaineering legend. They were two headstrong 20-somethings when they decided to scale the 21,000-foot Siula Grande—a climb nobody had ever completed successfully. What’s more, they decided to do it Alpine style: carrying everything on their backs, with no escape plan and no shelter apart from snow caves.
They actually reached the peak successfully. On the way down, however, Simpson absolutely wrecked his leg (driving his bones through his knee joint; it hurts even to hear him talk about it) after a fall. Simpson thought he was as good as dead, but Yates wouldn’t leave him: The climbers made agonizingly slow progress for a while, with Yates lowering Simpson 150 feet at a time down the sheer snow-covered face. But when Simpson accidentally ended up dangling off the edge of a cliff overlooking a deep crevasse, Yates was faced with an impossible choice: Attempt an incredibly tough rescue that would probably kill him as well, or allow Simpson to plunge to certain death.
Yates cut the rope. And Simpson lived.
We know this because they’re both interviewed extensively in Touching the Void, as is the friend back at their base camp who assumed they were both dead. The climbers and the filmmakers all went to Siula Grande to shoot reenactments for the film, with actors (Brendan Mackey and Nicholas Aaron) playing the climbers. Macdonald captured spectacular vistas in the Peruvian Andes, dramatically evoking the bleakness of the men’s ordeal by showing the unforgiving landscape in which they fought it.
Most surprisingly of all, the reenactments work—and that’s because Macdonald never allows them to become more than that. The actors barely say a word in the 106-minute film, beyond shouting each other’s names and cursing in frustration and terror. There’s no attempt at character development or sap production in any level of the film. Instead of treating mountain climbing as an elaborate metaphor for finding yourself and discovering what it really means to be a man (see: Krakauer, Jon), Touching the Void is blessedly free of all but the most basic psychological insight. (Simpson, an atheist in his youth, discovered that he honestly didn’t believe in God, because he had no impulse to pray when his plight was at its worst.)
Macdonald combines everything into a spare, gripping adventure tale that’s straightforward and unforgettable. Every aspect of the production is remarkable, but none more so than the filmmakers’ ability to add a touch of extra drama without adding distraction from real life. Perhaps docudrama should only be approached with a British stiff upper lip.
TOUCHING THE VOID, ****, Documentary , Directed by Kevin Macdonald