Documenting climbing feats

Climbers at the ISFC Climbing World Cup in Villars

Documenting climbing feats is an interesting challenge because you deal with issues of accessibility, projects that can last for months or even years and in some cases you’re dealing with the prospect of the climber understanding the problem, and then achieving his goal. For two or three years I really explored ideas for a climbing documentary before losing steam. My interest in the topic was still there but I couldn’t think of whom to put in front of the camera. 

In my free time I have watched a lot of documentary films about climbing. Some are short, filmed over just a few hours and others are about longer duration projects that can last for a week or two. When I heard that Alex Honnold was free soloing El Cap I didn’t realise all of the preparation that he had been through. It’s only after watching his TED talk that I understood and my respect for his process grew. 


I like his TED talk because he really goes into detail about his preparation. You see that it is a process that takes years. Moves are practiced over and over until they are perfect. This is repeated for every pitch. Nothing is left to chance. 

Aside from the mental preparation of the climber there is also the process that the cinéma verité crew must go through. In the documentary that I have included below you learn about the questions of ethics that are posed. Questions such as “how do we film this without distractions, how do we film this without endangering his life, how do we make this as safe as possible. The answer is using professional climbers and friends as camera crew. People that know the sport know when to be quiet and what move to expect next. 

It’s interesting that in this feature they discuss the use of remote cameras for one or two sections, so that Alex feels alone and focused on the task at hand. Remote cameras on a cliff hundreds of metres off of the ground. 

If a documentary is well made, like The Dawn Wall was, then you watch a documentary on a niche topic without growing bored or distracted. If it well filmed then it is as complete as a book. A well made documentary is as complete as a book.

The beauty over documentary films, as opposed to news coverage is that documentaries can be relevant to a small niche of people rather than cater to the lowest common denominator. This is especially true in an age where documentaries can be seen at film festivals, specialist events, offered as videos on demand and more. Keep in mind that in 2020 climbing will be an Olympic sport and that in this context documentaries that are made about climbers are going to attract an ever-growing audience. What is niche today will appeal to a wider audience tomorrow. 

Two years ago I volunteered at the Festival Du Film Alpin and I was really happy to watch a genre, that until then I had seen mainly on youtube appear on a big screen with a large audience. Recently I was at the Magnetic Film premiere and this was an interesting experience and last night I was at Pathé Balexert, a mainstream cinema watching a documentary about climbing. The next step would be for one of these documentaries to be screened on an IMAX screen. 

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