The Summit

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The Summit is the second feature length documentary we saw at Sundance, and was quite a different experience to Blackfish. Before attacking the plot, lets prologue this review by saying The Summit looks absolutely beautiful. Being able to see the K2 mountain on a cinema screen is so much more satisfying than on a TV and the general landscapes and vistas of the movie are stunning; they lend themselves perfectly to the cinematic medium.

Narrative-wise, The Summit deals with the true story of a large number of expeditions from many countries that descended on K2, the second largest peak on Earth, to ascend to its summit. The first title card tells us, of the 25 mountaineers that tried to summit the mountain on 2nd August 2008, 11 died. The suspense of the narrative is explained within 30 seconds of the movie, so naturally you would expect quick gratification of the story, or at least an understandable, coherent set of imagery and character development. This movie won Best Editing at Sundance Documentary Festival in January, and while it was fantastically executed from a technical standpoint, we quickly found ourselves lost within the reconstructions [which were shot in 2:35:1], archive footage [which was whatever ratio of the climbers’ cameras] and documented photos. The story is not told in a linear way; we are repeatedly seeing a series of the same shots, and before the peak of the narrative it was difficult to decipher whether some of the shots were from the actual event or reconstructions. The existence of archive footage is a gift to a documentary, it should be clearly definable to the viewer, not lost. Making a documentary with cinematic stylistics is sometimes the perfect way to tell a story (Touching The Void is the key example), but there is a fine line a film-maker has to tread between narrative development and narrative contrivance, and there were points in The Summit when unfortunately it was the latter.

The human tragedy suffered by the families and friends of the dead climbers is a clear focus of the documentary. The talking head interviews help us develop a deeper understanding of some of the key protagonists and their motivations, and the Walter Bonatti segments describing a previous failed Italian expedition in 1954 are beautifully poetic, however the ending is somewhat confused. Rhetorically, are we supposed to be annoyed at the Korean expedition, as they seem to be painted as having an archaic climbing style? Is the thrill of mountaineering described by the characters supposed to make us overtly sympathetic to their sport?  It’s a detriment to the film-makers that these questions are lingering.  The Summit would have benefited with a bolder argument or even a hypothesis into how events unfolded on the K2, instead the ambiguous nature of the story has transferred into its telling. 

The Summit looks absolutely stunning and tells a fantastic story; one that shocked the wider climbing world and general public back in 2008, but ultimately it suffers from its own ambition. Sometimes the facts speak for themselves, and even more so when they are presented in a coherent manner.

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Blackfish

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Blackfish, the feature-length documentary from Gabriela Cowperthwaite, investigates the 2010 tragic death of Seaworld trainer Dawn Brancheau by a 12,000 pound male orca whale, Tilikum, at Seaworld Orlando. Using archive news footage inter-cut with interviews with former Seaworld trainers, Blackfish examines the chequered history of keeping orca whales in captivity, from its grim beginnings to its tragic current state. Beginning with the capture of Tilikum in 1983 off the coast of Iceland, using deeply saddening archive footage, Cowperthwaite draws the audience in with what is ultimately an objective, fact-driven love story to these majestic, almost spiritual, creatures.

Blackfish truly is a lesson in engaging, intelligent documentary making. No single point was laboured, and the sheer volume of content in Blackfish, before even adding merit for cinematic style, is commendable alone; like with any accomplished film maker, Cowperthwaite’s argument  manages to be balanced with a varying range of testimonials to both support and challenge her message. This alone would have been enough to separate Blackfish from the mundane but, Cowperthwaite brings a plethora of cinematic goodies to delight the viewer. The film is visceral; with an impressive, highly researched and at times ethereally edited collection of archive footage, it is both powerful and dynamic to watch. The juxtaposition of the shocking stock footage against the retro, shiny Seaworld adverts worked fantastically to highlight the falsity of the image over the real. Both of us went into this documentary thinking that we wanted to see real footage of the attack, but by the halfway point we both flip-flopped and were hiding behind gasps and shocked head-rubs, actively willing the documentary not to show us anymore graphic footage; to clarify, we do not see Dawn’s death, but a series of previous attacks on trainers and other orcas that become increasingly difficult to watch.

Cowperthwaite has really achieved something special here with Blackfish; it’s gripping, emotional, truthful and beautiful all in equal measures. This film is stunning and raises questions that, as conscious and responsible consumers, we should all be thinking about completely. The relationship between man and animal is the constant theme throughout, and Blackfish raises questions of the wider issue of animals in captivity, but does it in such a way as to make we, the audience, complicit in finding the answers rather than presenting them to us.

Blackfish has been picked up for theatre distribution in the UK and US, with a July 26th release date. If there is one documentary you watch at the cinema this summer, make it Blackfish.