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- Henry David Thoreau


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Reviews

Oct 31, 2018

Free Solo: This Portrait of Alex Honnold, is so Much More Than Just a Climbing Film

How do you offer a balanced film review, when it's one of the best documentary's that you have ever seen?

WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin worked with National Geographic to produce hands-down, the best climbing movie that I have seen.

But, to be honest, this is not really a climbing film. Ok, well, it is a climbing film… but there is so much more to it than that.

Photo: National Geographic

The film’s plot is centered around a single climb that Alex Honnold is preparing for. El Capitan’s 3,000 vertical-foot rock face in Yosemite, California. Solo. No rope. No safety net. Simply him and the rock.

To put this into perspective, for anyone who isn’t a die-hard rock climber, and can’t relate to this feat… imagine climbing a ladder twice the size of the Empire State Building. But instead of the ladder having nice, big rungs to hold onto, it has pebbles jutting out one centimeter (or less) that you are expected to rest your feet and hands on. Oh, and making a mistake, falling, is simply not an option.

The whole film leads up to the suspense of this one climb. Will Alex be successful? Will he complete the climb and become the first person to ever free solo the famous El Capitan? Or will he make a mistake and plummet to his death?

Spoiler alert! Alex is still alive today. We all knew that the worst wasn’t going to happen. However, despite knowing that Alex is still alive today. Despite being aware that he had already completed the climb, my palms were so sweaty, I could barely grip the pencil that I was using to jot notes down for this review.

Even the seemingly very masculine man sitting next to me in the theater was falling into his seat with anticipation. He kept sinking further and further, at first I thought he was falling asleep, but when I looked next to me to check, he was gripping the armrest so hard his knuckles were turning white.

Read about Alex Honnold’s Free Solo climb up El Capitan here.

Rock climber Alex Honnold completes a 3,000-foot rope-free climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park on June 3, 2017. The historic event was documented for an upcoming National Geographic feature film and magazine story. Photo credit: Jimmy Chin/ National Geographic

So, how did Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi do it? How is it possible that even though I already knew the outcome of the plot, I was still so torn with suspense and anticipation that I experienced physical symptoms (sweaty palms, racing heartbeat) of anxiety?

The videography was superb. Every shot, every angle, every pan was thoroughly well thought-out. The crew was comprised of professional climbers with rope access skills beyond that which I am able to comprehend. Each camera on the wall was there because someone either climbed up the rock face to place it there, or rappelled down from the summit so they could dangle on a rope 3,000 feet in the air, for hours on end, in order to get the shot.

Even the soundtrack contributed to the suspense. Similar to any Hollywood-style movie, epic music would ring loud when a feat had been accomplished. When the story became tense, so would the music.

The production aside, the most exhilarating aspect of the film was the character development. It was a glimpse into the mind of a seemingly super-human individual. A mind that us mere mortals can only ponder about, but never empathize with or relate to. Alex’s emotional capacity is similar to that of his father, who as it turns out, had a mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome, a syndrome which tends to run in families. The film was a view into the relationship between Alex, this robot-like individual, and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, who is a seemingly strong-minded woman with a normal capacity for emotion. Their relationship dynamic is what separates this film from every other climbing movie out there.

With Alex’s inability to empathize with Sanni’s feelings, and Sanni’s attempts to understand Alex’s mind, the question comes up of how a relationship like this could work? But they make it work… and this is one of the most beautiful plot lines I have seen in an adventure film.

If I say much more I will risk giving away the entire film. So I will stop and just say that If you are a die-hard rock climber, you should go to see this film.
If you have only rock climbed once in your life, you should go to see this film.
If you have seen a rock climbing gym and considered going in, but not done so, you should go to see this film.
If you have never even considered going rock climbing, and probably never will, you should still go to see this film.

Find a theatre near you that is showing Free Solo, on the National Geographic website.

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Video

Sep 27, 2018

Aqua Negra Film Review: An Introspective Spearfishing Adventure

Two filmmakers embark on a rugged island adventure to pursue the unknown

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WRITTEN BY

Davey Braun

Spearfishing is a necessary way of life to many people around the planet, including the locals on Cape Verde island. To a few dedicated individuals, like the ones in this film, they’ve committed to travel, explore and hunt in the midst of the food chain as a lifestyle. In Aqua Negra, spearfishing is not portrayed as a sport. There is no competition for the biggest catch, no first place medal. A small crew tests their patience, skill and grit in the waters off Cape Verde island, in a way, to examine destiny itself.

To view the film, CLICK HERE.

It exposes the rare perspective of humans as a vulnerable part of the food chain.

The film opens with the following bold, yet oxymoronic disclaimer: “The following film contains awesome spearfishing material that could be offensive to some.” If you’re sensitive to hunting or fishing footage, then you should probably watch something else. However, this film is not just for fishing enthusiasts. It transcends spearfishing. It exposes the rare perspective of humans as a vulnerable part of the food chain and the nitty-gritty of what it takes when we forgo grocery stores and go straight to the source for our food.

The cinematic introduction to the film subverted my expectations. Instead of a spearfishing documentary, this is an artistic film about searching. With monochrome color grading, faded silhouettes and somber music reminiscent of the score from American Beauty, the serious tone surprised me.

After a brief explanation about what motivates David Ochoa to pursue his passion, the film shifts its tone from melancholy to wondrous. The score sweeps with awe, on par with the soundtrack for Planet Earth. After a quick chapter marker, the switch to color makes the establishing shot of Cape Verde look utterly unreal.

Their auteur approach is exemplified in the film’s non-linear structure.

If your only exposure to spearfishing is through Instagram, you might think it’s something you do on vacation, glamorous even. However, throughout the film, as David pursues the unknown, we can see the struggles of a spearfisher – the miles he must walk back to camp due to the currents, the frustrations of trying to find support from locals, the sheer danger of shark encounters and the loss when “the taxman” takes a huge bite out of his catch.

Filmmakers Ricardo Nascimento and David Ochoa have taken this project very seriously. Their auteur approach is exemplified in the film’s non-linear structure. Taking inspiration from Tarantino, the film is divided into non-sequential chapters that keep the audience engaged, unable to predict the story arch. David’s narration is introspective and unguarded.

Shot Selection

There are several brilliant montages of colorful biodiversity and marine life.

The variety of shots in this film is impressive. There are several brilliant montages of colorful biodiversity and marine life. The wide shots introducing each new chapter are stunning, especially Chapter 3. In contrast, there are plenty of close-up spearfishing action shots and seamless switches from third person to POV underwater footage. During one scene where David wrestles a massive, six foot long fish to the surface, I had the strange thought that when I scratched an itch on my nose, my hands would smell like fish.

The sound design is top notch as well. As David narrates his story, you can faintly pick out subtle seagull noises and just the right amount of wind in the background. Also, that familiar “tang” sound of the spear hitting the rock triggered me to load up my spear and get in the water.

Coloring the Abyss

The professional quality color grading establishes deep saturations, with rich reds and vivid blues. However, the grading overall is too dark for my taste. The strong contrast and stylized grading may take away from the rugged realness of Cape Verde. Can it truly look that beautiful?

The Dividing Line

The film presents a solid profile and background for its central focus, David Ochoa’s search for challenging, yet rewarding spearfishing spots around Cape Verde. However, if I could impose myself in the editing room, I’d suggest a more balanced inclusion of Valentine Thomas, a world record holding spearfisher in her own right, who also has an inspirational background.

Moreover, because each spearfisher is covered head to toe in their wetsuit, mask and large fins, you can’t identify who is who underwater.

Read Next on The Outdoor Journal: Dive into the Deep Unknown with Kimi Werner, a 37-year-old Hawaiian professional free diver and a decorated spear fisher.

Going Deep

Dock6 Films impressively shows that a small crew and budget can result in high-end production.

Agua Negra is an absorbing, artistic film about spearfishing and chasing the unknown. Dock6 Films impressively shows that a small crew and budget can result in high-end production. For those with an adventurous spirit, Agua Negra’s story will draw you in. Although at some points I was confused whether the filming was taking place in realtime or whether the filmmakers went back to film a reshoot based on earlier experiences. Overall, even those who are completely new to spearfishing will appreciate the film’s sense of exploration and wonder.

To view the film Agua Negra, CLICK HERE.

For general information about the movie, check out the Dock6 Films website.

You can see more photos and footage on Instagram @aguanegrathemovie

Images: Dock6 Films

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