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Touching the void - Nicholas Aaron, Brendan Mackey, Simon Yates, Joe Simpson, Kevin Macdonald

Threat advisory: Under evaluation

Movie propaganda

The closer you are to death, the more you realise you are alive.

In June, 1985, British mountain climbers Joe Simpson (21) and Simon Yates (25) became the first people ever to make their way up to the top of the 6400 metre Siula Grande peak in the Peruvian Andes via the mountain's nearly 90 degree west face. An accident during their descent, however, left Simpson with three breaks in his right leg (ankle, knee and calf). An attempt to lower Simpson down the nearly 90° face of the mountain went awry, and Yates was forced to make a tough decision to cut Simpson's line in order to prevent them from both falling to their dooms. Miraculously, however, this additional fall did not kill Simpson, and he continued to crawl his way down the mountain, making his way to the base camp just a few hours before Yates was planning on leaving, presuming Simpson to be dead. This documentary combines interviews with Simpson with re-enactment footage to depict the miraculous survival story of how the mountaineer painfully crawled his way down the side of a mountain.

Persons of interest

  • Nicholas Aaron .... Simon Yates
  • Brendan Mackey .... Joe Simpson
  • Richard Hawking
  • Joe Simpson .... Himself, Novelist
  • Simon Yates .... Himself
  • Kevin Macdonald .... Director

Cinematic intelligence sources

Intelligence analyst

Special Agent Matti

Theatrical report


Media intelligence (DVD)

  • Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1
  • Languages: English
  • Picture: Widescreen 16:9
  • Special features:
    • Trailers: Upcoming releases

Security censorship classification

M (Medium level coarse language)

Surveillance time

106 minutes (1:46 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 24 June 2004
DVD rental: 24 November 2004
VHS rental: 24 November 2004
DVD retail: 1 September 2005

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Director's statement

My nails were bleeding around the edges and seemed to be coming lose, my face felt like someone had rubbed it with a belt sander, my lips were split open like a ripe tomato, and every time I so much as moved I found myself gasping for breath.

It has to be said that filming at high altitude in the Peruvian Andes wasn't always (or even often) that much fun. My disintegrating body was only part of the problem: the cold tended to make all our camera batteries run down (solution: sleep with them nice and close in your sleeping bag) and our lenses ice over. Directing a scene while roped to four other people is also a novel experience.

There were many times while making Touching the void when I wondered why I was putting myself through this physically arduous experience.

Well, there are a few reasons.

First, of course, there was the sheer challenge. I am a town person. I find the thought of being more than 600 metres from a good restaurant disturbing. I take no exercise unless forced. But I like to throw myself into strange worlds, unusual experiences - that's part of why I am a filmmaker in the first place. And what could be more of a challenge than to make a film set in the world of high altitude mountaineering in an isolated location three days walk from the nearest village?

Secondly, because I am by background and inclination a documentary maker, I knew that if I was going to make a film about the true experiences of Joe Simpson, the man whose story this is, then I would have to return to where the events he describes actually happened. I wanted my film to feel as real as possible. I've seen too many mountaineering films where crevasses are recreated in moulded plastic in a studio and "storm scenes" are actually shot with a wind machine on a sunny day so that the actors don't get too uncomfortable. These films don't get close to showing what it's really like to be on one of these mountains - or why it is that the climbers climb in the first place.

My third reason was simply to make a film in a landscape that is not a cliché. The hidden ring of snowy mountains where we filmed, known as the Huayhuash Range, have been isolated from the world for many years not only because of their location but also because the area around them was long a stronghold for the Shining Path guerrilla movement who played bloody havoc in Peru for much of the 80s and 90s. With its bright turquoise-blue lakes, exquisite meringue mountains and bright red rocks it was like a CGI world created for an expensive car commercial - only it was real and no one had ever filmed there before.

Moreover, when you make a film in Europe or America - especially in a city like London or New York - you are forever worrying about how to make the place look different from how a thousand different TV programs and films have made it look over the years. In the mountains that problem doesn't exist. Every day you see things - from details to enormous vistas - which are new to you. I'm particularly proud of some of the scenes we shot deep within the glacier, in a giant crevasse. These are strange, scary but beautiful places that I for one had never seen properly in a film before.

Finally, and most importantly, I knew that I would never really understand the experience my characters had gone through during their extraordinary adventure if I didn't know - at least superficially - what it was like to be in that world. So I felt it was part of my job to get cold, to eat horrible freeze-dried food and most importantly, to feel what it is like to be a tiny living speck in a vast inhospitable landscape of ice and rock where nothing else is alive. Beauty can also be terrifying. I realised that for the first time.

The experience of being there made me re-evaluate my judgement of one of the two main characters in the story. Simon left his friend for dead without a second thought, without checking if he was alive or not. I had always thought this was an unbelievably callous thing to have done. But after a few days on the mountain I realised that he did what he did because in that sort of environment, having spent five days climbing a mountain, you only think about your own survival. You are probably hallucinating. You just don't have the energy to think of someone else.

While I was in the mountains I had a strong sense that the gods never intended for human beings to be in places like this. We can't actually live there for any length of time, we can merely exist temporarily with the aid of our down jackets and high-tech climbing gear. I realised that to even try to reach the top of one of these great mountains is a spiritual, life affirming, identity affirming statement. By pitting yourself against the mountain you are in effect yelling: "Yes! I am! Yes! I am! Yes! I am!"

Anyway, these are the things I tell myself when I look at the film now and wonder: who the hell would be stupid enough to shoot in a place like that?

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