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The Summit Takes Hybrid Documentaries to the Next Level

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The Summit will be available in select theaters throughout the United States starting October 4, 2013.

The Summit is one of the most thrilling documentaries I’ve ever seen. The film is a hybrid depiction of the disastrous climb, in 2008, of the K2 mountain in the Himalayas. Eleven people died. Director Nick Ryan and writer Mark Monroe have threaded this real story into a mountain adventure, using recreations, interviews and archival footage. (That’s what makes it a hybrid.) The film premieres on October 4, 2013, but there’s a sneak screening, open to the public, at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens on Sunday, September 29, 2013, where the film is being paired with the equally awesome Touching the Void, also about a disastrous climb, documented in a similarly cutting-edge style. The latter film broke the mold in 2003, and now The Summit is taking the hybrid doc to the next level.

The Summit is breathtaking — beautiful photography of majestic mountains and real, intimate footage from the actual events. But it’s in the threading together of those elements, with high production re-enactments, that the story is told. And it’s a nail-biter.

Which is not to say the film doesn’t raise certain issues, such as whether it is ethical to dramatize a tragedy and do re-creations push a film from non-fiction into fiction territory?

These questions are all the more significant because The Summit is so effective. It’s not like the clumsy, B-roll reenacting of yesteryear (or even 2012′s very popular The Imposter which shares The Summit producer John Battsek), or the cerebral flights of fancy from Errol Morris. This is moviemaking on a Hollywood level.

I asked Ryan, over email, about some of the issues, and some of what made The Summit so awesome.

(This interview contains what readers may consider spoilers for The Summit and Stories We Tell.)

Doc Soup Man: How did you come about to making The Summit?

I was initially drawn in by the statistic that for every four climbers who have stood on the summit of K2, one had died trying. Those are worse odds than Russian roulette. It seemed like a peculiar form of insanity and I wanted to understand why anyone would put themselves up against them. We started the process of making the film very soon (several weeks) after the events of August 2008, and I’m not sure how I felt about the climbers, but was probably more critical of their actions and motivations, much like the press and public reaction to the tragedy.

Doc Soup Man: There’s some speculation in the film, particularly by loved ones about the heroic actions of Ger McDonnell, the Irish climber, that could influence the way the audience thinks of him. Is this something you struggled with?

In the process of interviewing the survivors, and particularly Pemba, the actions of Irishman Ger McDonnell came to light. Initially he was just one of the unfortunate souls to have lost their lives that day. Whilst we can never be 100% sure of exactly what happened on the morning of August 2nd, the testimonies that present the scenario point very much to the heroic actions of Ger. From Pemba’s testimony to understanding the nature of Ger, and his previous form on mountains, I believe the story we show is true. The biggest struggle was how to present that, as it is complex.

Doc Soup Man: Related to the above question, were you concerned that the film veers at times toward fiction from non-fiction?

I don’t believe so, or feel that it does. The events at times can seem like a fiction, but we were very careful to portray only that which we were told in interviews.

Doc Soup Man: Please discuss the creative challenge regarding the recreation shots of the accidents, in which we see climbers sliding to their deaths.

I didn’t want to sensationalize any of the deaths in the film. To me it was important to engage the audience in the narrative and to portray the shocking simplicity in how one can die in these extreme environments.

Doc Soup Man: How did you wrestle with any ethical issues about the dramatization of someone dying? Or did you not see it as an issue?

It absolutely was an issue, as these are real people and not characters in a dramatic film. I had to imagine the horrific feelings that some of the climbers must have felt, and also the emotions of contemplating how it was possible for this to have happened. Mark Monroe (writer) and myself felt it would be wrong to show some deaths and not others, so we portrayed only those that we have testimonies and witness of. In that way we don’t speculate on how some of them died.

Doc Soup Man: I was very impressed by the way the film seamlessly incorporates the recreations. How difficult was that? What were your best tools? The writing? Film stock?

I wrote the recreations in a screenplay format, based on the testimonies, video footage and photos from the expeditions. I cross-referenced statements with photos looking at the times, and positions of where climbers were on the mountain. These were then discussed in detail with the sherpas who acted as advisors during the shooting. We shot in the Swiss Alps (on the Eiger) and although it is incredible, the location wasn’t like the Karakorum region of the Himalaya, so we used green screen to replace the background with images of the correct mountains such as Broad Peak and the Gasherbrums as would be seen from the location on K2. These elements were from photos taken by the climbers in 2008 and also images I shot on a very high altitude flight to K2 in 2011.

I purposely shot the recreations in 2.35 format on Anamorphic lenses with Robbie Ryan as cinematographer, to distance them from the real footage from 2008, but no one seems to notice the shift in ratio from 16:9 to 2.35:1 during the film, which I guess means that they are engaged with the film, and that was what I had hoped for. I think also that because the re-creation for all intent purposes looks like it is on K2, brings the audience into the film in an immersive manner, which is what we set out to do.

Doc Soup Man: Have you seen Stories We Tell? I think Sarah Polley has done dramatically what you’ve done in an action doc. Do you look forward to seeing more docs that do the same? Do you have one in the works?

I haven’t seen Stories We Tell. Thematically The Summit is about stories. Everyone on the mountain has one and their perspective on the events and — like is common in traumatic experiences — they can vary quite a bit. I have noticed from some viewings, as the climbers involved have seen the film, that to them it is also a revelation. They were aware of their own personal experience of the events, but when they see it in context to all the others, it is quite shocking. All we can hope for with the film is that audiences can come and see the film and go away making their own minds up about what happened on the mountain.

Attend a preview screening of The Summit at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens on Sunday, September 29, 2013 at 4 PM with director/producer Nick Ryan in person. Visit the film’s official website for more information about nationwide screenings and events.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki