Enough rope

by Rachel Helyer Donaldson / 17 July, 2004

It's widely acknowledged that documentaries are currently big at the box office. But Oscar winner Michael Moore and the hugely hyped Super Size Me are not the only ones being lauded for their upfront brand of realism. Touching the Void - about the harrowing ordeal of two climbers - dwarfs mountain melodramas like Cliffhanger and Alive.

Part of this year's International Film Festival, Touching the Void won best British Film at this year's BAFTAS, beating the likes of Cold Mountain and Love Actually. To date, it's the biggest grossing documentary ever released in the UK. Using a mix of dramatic reconstructions and interviews, the film recreates a story that has passed into mountaineering legend. In 1985, two British climbers, Joe Simpson and Simon Yates, conquered the west face of Siula Grande, a treacherous 6400m peak in the Peruvian Andes. On descent, Simpson broke his leg, just as the weather closed in. To save him, Yates heroically lowered his partner down most of the face. But when Simpson went over an overhang, Yates was forced to make a horrible decision: to die with his friend or break what director Kevin MacDonald has called "the biggest taboo in climbing", to cut the rope on his partner. He cut the rope. Simpson fell some 55 metres, landing in an enormous crevasse. Miraculously, he managed to get out, crawling for three days and nights back to base camp.

Based on Simpson's best-selling memoir of the same name, Touching the Void took Simpson and Yates back to Siula Grande. Wide shots of the men on the mountain are used, while actors play the pair in close-up scenes filmed in the European Alps. Despite the audience knowing that Simpson and Yates survived, the retelling of the pair's fight for survival is an excruciating watch. Interviews with the climbers and their companion Richard Hawking are intimate and direct, while the dramatic sequences place the viewer firmly at the front of this white-knuckle ride.

The film's editor is expat Kiwi Justine Wright, 37. Unusually for an editor, Wright attended both location shoots, as assistant director, which was beneficial back in the edit suite. Wright had already started to cut down 25 hours of interview material. Better than anyone, she knew the material and what shots were needed on the mountain. One of these starts as a close-up of Simpson, then dramatically pulls back to reveal two tiny climbers on the vast face. Simpson had mentioned feeling like a powerless ant in that immense landscape. Wright cuts separate scenes to see how they work together as a sequence, rather than editing a film from start to finish. But the opening 20 minutes, she says, was "a nightmare to cut, a void". The challenge was to set up the story - the characters, the mountain and why people climb. It's generally best for an editor to come fresh to footage, but going to Siula Grande helped Wright show its splendour and power. The high-altitude shoot had its own moments of drama, she says. Tension built between MacDonald and Yates. The climber refused to be pushed on whether he felt guilty for cutting the rope, and came close to physically attacking the director. After the trip, he refused to have anything more to do with the production. Simpson, meanwhile, has said the film accurately represents what he went through. Wright has previously worked with MacDonald on the Oscar-winning documentary One Day in September (2000), about the murder of Israeli athletes at the 1974 Munich Olympics. The film triumphed over Buena Vista Social Club to win Best Documentary at the 2000 Academy Awards and helped Wright win Best Newcomer Behind the Camera at the British Independent Film Awards.

The former Wellington journalist moved to London in 1990. She started her editing career soon after, working her way up from receptionist for Soho production house the Film Editors, where Touching the Void was edited. It's owned by Kathy O'Shea, daughter of New Zealand film-making pioneer John O'Shea.

Since the film, Wright and Kiwi partner Alan Sewell have had a daughter, Elliot. Wright's mother, artist Dinah Priestley, still lives in Wellington, while her father, former Listener journalist Vernon Wright, now lives in Zambia. Sister Tandi is well known for roles in Shortland Street and Street Legal and another sister, Nikki, works for DOC. When Simpson's book came out in 1987, Justine Wright belonged to the Victoria University Tramping Club. "I didn't read it then, but I certainly remember the buzz about it, people saying, 'Wow, this is the most amazing book, you've got to read this.'" She's equally confident that Kiwis will take to the film. "Loads of people knew the book and I think it will go down very well."

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