Scottish documentary filmmaker KEVIN MACDONALD chats about going on the piste in TOUCHING THE VOID. Words: Nick Dawson
‘ t's uncomfortable at high altitude: you feel nauseous. you don‘t feel hungry but
you're wasting away so you need to eat. you need to drink all the time so you‘re pissing all the time. your skin is dry and starts cracking up and bleeding. your nails start coming off — all that sort of stuff.’
As he talks about 'Iouehing the Void. his follow-up to the Oscar- winning One Day in .S‘eptemher. Kevin Macdonald is remarkably nonchalant about the unpleasant and dangerous conditions he had to endure in shooting his new documentary feature. Making this adaptation of Joe Simpson‘s remarkable autobiographical account of survival in the Peruvian mountains. Macdonald and his crew had little difficulty in conveying the dangers of mountain climbing because they put themselves at great risk to get the footage they wanted.
‘Filming in the Alps. some- times we‘d spend all day filming down in a crevasse hanging off an ice screw in the wall. In Peru. we were three or four days from the nearest town. and if something had happened up there at that altitude of nearly 2().()()() feet — like mountain sickness or water on the lungs or water on the brain or breaking an arm or leg — then you're really in trouble. because it‘s far too high to be rescued by a helicopter.’
Macdonald and his crew spent so much time at high altitude because — despite this being a documentary — the film relies heavily on reconstruction. a tool that Macdonald usually dislikes. ‘As a documentary maker. I‘ve always been really against reconstruction. It‘s a naff last resort. and is so cliched and overused in documentaries today. from historical ones to the one about Paul Gascoigne I saw the other day.’
However. by using recon- struction. he was able to evoke most fully the incredible drama of the story. The film is not a straight documentary. but part of a new breed of films which meld together different media. and indeed Macdonald enthusiastically cites In This World and the forthcoming American Splendor as proof that ‘the interaction between fiction and documentary is a very rich seam at the moment.‘
Previously. people as diverse as Tom (‘ruise and Werner Herzog. as well as Spielberg's producer lirank Marshall. had unsuccessfully tried to put Simpson‘s book on the big screen. and Macdonald acknowledges that his subject regrets that these projects never came to fruition. ‘Joe does still want to be played by a big
32 THE LIST 1 1 Dec 2003—8 Jan 2004
WE'D SPEND ALL DAY FILMING DOWN IN A CREVASSE HANGING OFF AN ICE SCREW IN THE WALL
Hollywood star. He‘s got a high sense of his self
worth. But Joe‘s not a Hollywood hero: he‘s a slightly abrasive. difficult person. and there‘s a raw. difficult edge to him. He‘s basically a very nice. kind. generous person. but there are elements to his character that are unattractive. That‘s what’s so great about him and Simon (Yates. Simpson’s then climbing partner): they are these interesting. complicated characters.‘ Macdonald confesses that the highest mountain he had ever climbed before making this film was Ben Lomond. and says that he intentionally chose this film as something radically different from One Day in .S'epfemln'r. ‘I get bored doing the same thing more than once. I look at all my films as experiments: I don’t know if they're going to work. This was an experiment to see if you could mix documentary and drama — and if you know you really might fall flat on your face. that gives you some proper stimulation.‘ (‘ouched in appalling. spellbinding subjective truths 'I'oiiehing the Void packs quite a considerable punch which leaves the viewer with the chill factor of lived through experience. It‘s fair to say that another of Macdonald‘s 'experiments‘ has worked out pretty well.
Touching the Void is on selected release from Fri 12 Dec. See review.
Film editor Paul Dale selects his film highlights of 2003
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Like you care what I think. The beauty of having any kind of cultural life is that it's all such a subjective feast. my friend. One man's pickled walrus is another man's sausage roll, or something like that. There are a few things I can tell you. however. If you didn‘t make the effort to see any of the films I am about to list. you are going to hell, and the devil. he's got a hard on for yOu. These are films that I have loved in 2003. movies that have moved me to tears. consternation and murder in advocacy of them. I may be wrong in my choices but let‘s face it. it's d0ubtful.
Here we go. I have listed these chronologically. in the order they were released throughout the year: Fernando Meirelles' remarkable Brazilian gangster epic City of God. Kaurismaki's Man Without a Past. Cronenberg‘s Spider. Noe's queasy Irreversible. Alex Cox's Revengers Tragedy. Haynes' Far From Heaven. Jonze's Adaptation. Clooney’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. the Dardenne brothers‘ The Son. Winterbottom's In This World. Moodysson's Lilya 4 Ever. A little French slice of pastoral surrealism called Le Souffle. Soderberg's Full Frontal. Korean kidney theft thriller Sympathy for Mr Vengeance. Mangold's Identity. Lee's Hulk. Jordan's Buffalo Soldiers. Green's All the Real Girls. Melville re-iSSue Le Cercle Rouge. Denis' Vendredi Soir. Two fantastic cartoons: Belleville Rendez-Vous and Spirited Away. Bonitzer's Petites Coupures, Eli Roth's Cabin Fever. Kill Bill Volume 1. Belvaux's Trilogy films. American Splendor. and. of course. Jafar Panahi's Iranian heist mowe Crimson Gold. scripted by the great Abbas Kiarostami. Iran. mon amour. yOu are showing the world the true nature of great cinema at the moment.