An Unknown Compelling Force

This camera holds the last images of a doomed expedition.

(2021) Documentary (1091) Liam Le Guillou, Svetlana Oss, Yuri Kuntsevich, Ken Holmes, Mick Fennerty, Oleg Demyanenko, Natalia Sakharova, Vladimir Askinadzi, Vladislav Karelin, Alexey Slepuhin, Aleksie Kutsevalov, Evgeniy Zinovyev, Tarzin Arkadevich, Andrey Picuzo, Valery Anyamov, Kharbina Aleksandrovna, Boris Bychkov, Alexander Fedotov, Anna Andreeva. Directed by Liam Le Guillou

 

On the night of February 1, 1959, a group of experienced hikers from Ural Polytechnic Institute had camped out in a pass near what locals call “Death Mountain” in the Ural mountain range. Sometime before the following the morning, the nine hikers fled their tent wearing only their sleeping clothes and no boots and ran into the subzero temperatures of the pass. After they didn’t report back when they were supposed to, a search party was organized. Their bodies were found in the snow, dead from exposure but with mysterious and grotesque injuries on their body. Their tent was found shredded, most likely by the panicked hikers who cut their way out of the tent and fled, according to the official report, “an unknown compelling force.”

Even back then, few bought it. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the investigative report was made public which led to further questions. A camera had been found near one of the bodies; the film had been developed and while most were pictures of smiling campers interacting with local villagers or trekking through the snow, one showed a mysterious figure standing on two legs. The very last picture on the roll, taken on the night the campers died, showed what appeared to be mysterious lights in the sky.

All sorts of theories have sprung up surrounding the incident, from a government cover-up after the hikers witnessed a weapon test they weren’t supposed to see, an attack by a Russian yeti (based on the photo of the bipedal figure), and even an attack by aliens (inspired by the last photo). As a result of the rampant speculation, the Russian government reopened the investigation, but closed it once again, citing an avalanche which led to the panic of the hikers.

To former photojournalist and current documentary filmmaker Liam Le Guillou, this seemed implausible. The British citizen found the story of the Dyatlov Pass incident (the pass now named after the leader of the ill-fated expedition) incredibly compelling and he came to be, he admits, obsessed by it. He contacted the head of a group dedicated to further investigation into the incident and was told to come to Russia if he wanted to find out the real story, so he did.

Along with an intrepid cameraman, Le Guillou proposed to investigate the incident himself using Russian sources, interviewing surviving members of the rescue team, criminologists and journalists along with American forensic and crime experts, reviewing the post-mortem photos (which are shown here, somewhat censored but still gruesome) and forensic evidence which still survives. He also decided to retrace the same journey taken by the Dyatlov party, using guide Kunitsevich, to see for himself where the tragedy took place.

The footage in the Urals is nothing short of majestic, albeit desolate. Snow-covered peaks and wintry vistas of bare trees and frozen rivers show the forbidding, unforgiving nature of the area, and gives viewers at least an inkling of what drew the young college students (although one of their number was actually much older than the rest of the group) to such a lonely spot.

Le Guillou also uses the diaries of the students to give them personalities as well as photos. It is eerie; they are so young and carefree, completely without any foreknowledge that they would never return from this trip and that their young lives would be cut short in a brutal manner.

And brutal it was indeed. One of the students had his skull nearly caved in; two others had serious chest wound, one of which was so severe that it bent part of the ribcage to puncture the victim’s heart; one hiker was missing her tongue and her eyes. Nearly all of them had some sort of defensive wounds All of the forensic investigators agreed that these were not wounds consistent with the avalanche story, but made by a brutal attack by humans.

Le Guillou also delves into the culture of the local tribes, who came under fire from some quarters as being complicit in the crime, or maybe even responsible for it. The argument goes that the hikers inadvertently stumbled into a sacred place or took a sacred object and were set upon by the tribespeople in retaliation. Le Guillou takes nearly all of the theories that have been advanced and dissected them; advancing some, disproving most.

The big problem here is Le Guillou himself. Not that he isn’t a thorough investigative reporter – he is – but he inserts himself a bit too much into the film, commenting over and over again how perilous the trek he is taking is, or how mindful he is that if something should happen there would be no help forthcoming. A good documentary concentrates on the subject because it is their story that is being told, not the filmmaker’s. Their story is far more compelling than that of Le Guillou.

REASONS TO SEE: The story is compelling and largely unknown in the West. The feeling throughout is eerie.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly dramatic narration that inserts Le Guillou into the story far too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some postmortem images of the bodies of the hikers.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally, ten hikers set out but Yuri Yudin was forced to turn back several days before his friends died by a bad back. He spent the rest of his days mourning their loss and after his own death in 2013, was added to the hiker’s memorial in the Urals.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 67% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Staircase
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Woman in the Window

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