Touching the Void

Essay from 9/1/17

Showing the personal tragedy of a near-death experience, Touching the Void, directed by Kevin MacDonald, is a documentary film which uses re-enacted scenes narrated by interviews to show an engaging true story. It shows the physical and emotional struggles of Joe Simpson who is left for dead by his climbing partner Simon Yates. The film’s creative approach to recounting a real event has inspired me to create my own documentaries (including my portfolio submission, Looking Back, Looking Forward).
The use of interviews establishes the film as a documentary and constantly reminds the audience that it is a true story. It also helps develop the characters – by knowing they have lives and personalities outside of the screen, the audience is more invested in their fate.
Close-ups of their faces reflect their honest and intimate account of the events and are juxtaposed with the re-enactment’s panoramic establishing shots. The contrast of three different points of view reinforces this honesty and gives a deeper insight into the characters’ relationships – Richard at their base camp even admits he didn’t like Joe very much. Joe and Simon’s friendship and past climbing experiences add tension to Simon’s decision to cut the rope.
The film creates a re-enactment based on these interviews, leading to an end result which sometimes feels more like a survival drama. It is unusual to see re-enactment used to this extent in a documentary but it is effective in building tension and is necessary to visually represent the content of the interviews.
Foley sound is used to create the atmosphere of their climbing expedition right from the start. The sound of the wind is particularly emphasised and this continues over the interview sections, linking these very different elements of the film together. This also helps establish their isolation and the harshness of the mountain setting.
Another significant technique is the use of layered and distorted footage which is intercut with random images to show Joe’s hallucinations as he lies close to death. These allow the audience to experience his emotional deterioration far more effectively than his descriptions could alone. However, a serious tone is still maintained and the visual effects are not overused.
MacDonald has achieved an effective balance of an intense and emotional re-enactment with direct, factual narration. This juxtaposition captivates the audience in a tense and engaging story while adding to its impact through the reality of the characters’ traumatic experiences.

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