|'Using reconstruction in a contemporary film is always a risky choice, but Macdonald's is so professionally shot that it is almost a short film in and of itself'|
As the title suggests, Kevin Macdonald's Documentary - based partially on the details provided in Joe Simpson's autobiographical book of the same name - is an entry into a fairly long cinematic canon concerned with what it is like to get somewhere near to death and survive. Touching The Void depicts the perilous journey undertaken by Simpson and climbing compatriot Simon Yates, who climbed the west face of Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985 and found that their route down was anything but straightforward.
Macdonald, a director who lives an apparently charmed existence, able to move between narrative and Documentary almost at will, has two strong advantages to his film immediately here in the shape of Simpson and Yates. Neither is backwards in coming forwards about what they thought about their trip down the mountain and, interviewed newly about the experience before the film's release in 2003, their knowledge and emotions have crystallised to the point of giving them perceived clarity. They, along with Richard Hawking, who remained at their camp whilst the other two climbed, provide compelling testimony and insight into their feelings then and since.
The second thing Macdonald brings to this film is his own clear knowledge of fiction, of telling a story outside of the talking head structure. In 2003 he had not yet made The Last King of Scotland, State Of Play or indeed, any other of his generally well-regarded narrative films, but the potential is clear to see here in the reconstruction footage he pieces together with actors Nicholas Aaron, Brendan Mackey and Ollie Ryall, and cinematographer Mike Eley. Using reconstruction in a contemporary film is always a risky choice, but Macdonald's is so professionally shot that it is almost a short film in and of itself, though the cuts to show impending madness amongst the climbers are a little too daft and a little too willing to conform to cliché.
The effect of both the talking head interviews and the crystal clear reconstruction (some of which was filmed at and upon Siula Grande itself; France and Switzerland stand in otherwise) is a Documentary which goes above and beyond others of its sort to provide both testimony and visual aides. 'Absorbing' sounds a bit too much like a snow-related cliche, but the fact is that it accurately represents the experience of watching Touching The Void. That said, Macdonald never does get close to articulating the feeling of 'the void'. A worthy sacrifice perhaps, in order to depict what it feels like to avoid it in not one, but two successful ways.