Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: With the sleep-paralysis documentary The Nightmare opening in select theaters, we look back on other docs that boldly or effectively employ dramatic recreations.
A documentary-drama hybrid that makes stellar use of reenactments, Touching The Void finds director Kevin Macdonald (One Day In September, The Last King Of Scotland) adapting Joe Simpson’s book about his 1985 attempt with fellow mountain climber Simon Yates to be the first to scale the west face of the Siula Grande peak in the Peruvian Andes. Simpson and Yates’ story is defined by action (and individual internal monologues) rather than actual conversational dialogue, as the two go about their wind- and snow-swept business in relative silence. So it’s fitting that Macdonald opts for his unique storytelling method, which allows Simpson and Yates to recount their thoughts, emotions, and deeds in new interviews, while using restaged sequences (with actors playing the climbers) to bring nerve-rattling life to their saga.
Tethered together, and opting to tackle the titanic mountain in one sustained trek (rather than setting up various way-station camps), Yates and Simpson fall into mortal danger when the latter breaks his leg and, shortly thereafter, finds himself dangling off a cliff, still connected to the former. Faced with an impossible choice, Yates cuts Simpson loose, a decision that allows him to live (if just barely), and which he believes results in Simpson’s death. That Simpson survives is evident by the fact that he’s narrating his own story, but that knowledge does little to alter the anxious tension generated by Touching The Void as it depicts Simpson’s arduous struggle to escape an enormous crevice and shimmy his way back down the mountain with one good leg.
Macdonald shoots his recreations with a bracing up-close-and-personal lucidity. The result is the rare documentary to employ staged material not for mere flourish, but to convey—without scripted histrionics and melodramatic clichés—the logistical and emotional specifics of its harrowing true tale.
Availability: Touching The Void is available on Blu-ray and DVD through Amazon or possibly your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix, and can be rented or purchased through the major digital services.