Blindsight opens with the statement that a blind man attempted to climb Mount Everest in 2001. It then fades to black...
Blindsight opens with the statement that a blind man attempted to climb Mount Everest in 2001. It then fades to black…
We hear footfalls crunching through snow. A calm yet breathless voice tells us that a large crevice lies ahead. There’s a ladder bridging it. Vitally, it leans to the left.
…our vision is then restored looking straight down between the feet of Erik Weihenmayer into the depths below. It’s a simple trick but an effective one. It also captures something of documentary maker Lucy Walker’s ability to sell an idea. You feel as if you are there.
All of Walker’s feature documentaries are driven by absurdly potent pitches. Amish teenagers going bonkers before they have to settle down; blind children scaling Mount Everest; a community living in the world’s biggest rubbish dump; looming nuclear Armageddon; tsunami survivors. Anybody with any interest in the world couldn’t fail to be captivated by these ideas.
Past the unique selling points, with the exception of Countdown to Zero, all of Walker’s films show communities colliding in some fashion. The best example of this comes in Blindsight again, where in the film proper a group of blind children from Tibet get dragged up Mount Everest by a bunch of mountaineers. The clash between the children’s teacher Sabriye Tenberken and the climber Erik Weihenmayer builds and builds in the background as the risks sink in. Both are blind.
First, some of the children have problems meeting the physical demands of the expedition. Then the effects of altitude become apparent with Tenberken’s persistent cough. Reaching Everest Base Camp the film shows them looking at the graves of those who have come before. Thankfully their destination is a neighbouring peak not Everest itself but even so they are taking a group of kids to a region where even professional climbers die on a regular basis. The result is a documentary that starts out feeling like some naff social work project but which ends up with some genuine peril. What’s more, to Walker’s credit neither the teacher nor the climber are portrayed as being especially wrong in their different approaches to helping these kids.
Elsewhere in Walker’s work this idea of collision appears in The Devil’s Playground as the Amish teens going through Rumspringa, a period of freedom before they choose their faith, contrast with their parents and the outside American society. In Waste Land it’s between the art of Vik Muniz and the wider world, and the community of ‘catadores’ who live in a rubbish dump collecting recyclable material. This idea becomes weaker in The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom. Here Walker talks to survivors of the 2011 earthquake and contrasts it with the annual cherry blossom season. This group has suddenly become dislocated from society through unimaginable tragedy yet life continues. Even Countdown to Zero carries some echoes of these clashes, comparing the Cold War set-up to the current one.
Most of Walker’s films are shot in the verité or observational style with the filmmakers only becoming apparent occasionally in interviews. Countdown to Zero sticks out from Walker’s other work because it carries a full-on argument: nuclear disarmament. It’s also her weakest film. Possibly the strength of the idea is simply too much. Take away the shock value of some of the anecdotes and once you’ve seen it the film becomes an empty husk. There’s nothing left. Which is, of course, exactly what will happen to the target of wherever the next nuclear weapon detonates.
Countdown to Zero suffers because it covers more ground than her other films and because it doesn’t have the communities or the contrasts as much. As is to be expected the background here is superb. Stories about tracking smuggled fissile material out of Russia or Boris Yeltsin saving the world by not responding with a full retaliatory strike against a false alarm, make shock waves. Yet the threads are simply too diverse and global for anything personal to emerge. The nearest the film gets to anything like this is with the Russian caught selling nuclear material and explaining why (he wanted a new car).
Walker’s best documentary is probably Waste Land. It brings together everything she’s good at, looking over artist Vik Muniz’s shoulder, as he gazes at a community living on Jardim Gramacho, a dump taking the detritus from Rio de Janeiro. The first thought that strikes upon watching Waste Land is how did nobody else think of doing this before. The second is the sheer scale of it all. In one of the early scenes the collectors charge onto the waste strewn out of a rubbish truck, clambering all over it. Walker and Muniz look at these people, they talk to them and examine how they came to be here and - crucially – how they feel about it. Throw in a soundtrack by Moby and some great camerawork by Dudu Miranda and the film excels.
Final comment should be made upon one of the short films Walker made for US firm Liberty Mutual Insurance about athletes preparing for the 2012 London Olympics. Responsibility & Sports: Ailson follows hopeful Brazilian rower Ailson Eraclito da Silva. Originally from a poor background, where he often went hungry, da Silva can now eat as much as he wants. Yet he has to keep his weight down in order to qualify for the national team. Despite being a positive, adverts intended to cash in on the games by association, Walker surpasses expectations with a surprising depth. Few directors can do this with commercial work.
25 October 2012