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

Encounters at the End of the World


Encounters at the End of the World

In the sea, in the sea, in the beautiful sea...

(2007) Documentary (THINKfilm) Werner Herzog, Henry Kaiser, Kevin Emery, Ashrita Furman, Douglas MacAyeal, David Ainley, William McIntosh, Peter Gorham, Regina Eisert, Clive Oppenheimer, Samuel S. Bowser, Ernest Shackleton, Jan Pawlowski. Directed by Werner Herzog

 

At the bottom of the world there is nowhere more desolate, more cold. It is a land without sunrise for six months, without sunset the other six. It is an alien world, inhabited by creatures found nowhere else who can survive in this harsh environment. It is also inhabited by people, people with great courage and also big dreams to sustain them in an unforgiving wilderness.

These are the sorts of things that draws in filmmaker Werner Herzog. With such documentaries as Grizzly Man to his credit, Herzog has a history of being drawn to people with big dreams that the rest of the world might term as odd or unusual. You won’t find anyone quite as unusual as those willing to live in Antarctica.

Herzog was originally drawn there by video taken of the area by his friend avant garde composer, musician and filmmaker Henry Kaiser. Kaiser had himself been brought there by a grant from the National Science Foundation for a writers and artists program in the Antarctic. Herzog got a similar grant but warned the Foundation that he wouldn’t be making a typical wildlife documentary. “No fluffy penguins,” he huffs on the narration. To their credit, the NSF agreed.

What we have here is not only a look at the penguins but also the creatures that exist below the ice, the microscopic life forms who lead a surprisingly violent existence but of more interest to Herzog is the men and women who live at McMurdo Station (the main settlement in Antarctica).

These are an eclectic bunch, some of whom are there mainly for the scientific discoveries in zoology and microbiology (which give insight as to how life evolved here on Earth and, potentially, on other planets), but also gives a front row seat at the apocalypse. The climate and ecological changes man has wrought upon the Earth manifest themselves first at the bottom of the world and the news here is pretty grim.

The images are incredible, particularly of the dives into the Ross Sea. Divers must drill a hole in the ice and then into the dark waters of the ocean they go. They wear no lines in order not to restrict their mobility and range and must trust that they can find the hole again to resurface before their oxygen runs out. However, while the life in these frigid waters is sparse and a little alien, it is beautiful in its own right.

So too is the desolate Arctic wilderness. There is a particularly compelling scene in which a penguin leaves the safety of the nesting ground, walking off the wrong way into the barren interior of the continent. Certain death awaits it, but it trudges on. Earlier, Herzog had asked marine ecologist David Ainley if there’s insanity among penguins; there is certainly some with suicidal tendencies.

There is also a passageway beneath McMurdo where “souvenirs” of those who have lived there before are stored; perfectly preserved by the cold, dry air. There’s a sturgeon from waters far from Antarctica, tins and other human debris, put into alcoves in the ice and left for future generations…assuming there are any.

Me being a history buff, one of the segments that appealed to me was the examination of Ernest Shackleford’s cabin, one built for an expedition almost 100 years ago – perfectly preserved. That expedition ended in disaster and one of the most heroic incidents of the 20th century – but that’s for another day.

Herzog has an obsession with the dreams of men (not in the nighttime sense) and labels those who toil at McMurdo “professional dreamers” and he has a point. However, Herzog often has a tendency to put himself front and center in the documentaries, making himself a part of the stories – he also has been known to stage incidents in his documentaries which I’m fairly certain he didn’t do here but one never knows.

That puts him at direct odds with documentarians like Errol Morris, who rarely get on-camera and take great pains to let his subjects tell their own stories. Herzog is instead more like Michael Moore, who like Herzog has a definite point of view and uses his camera to bolster it. Calling these films documentaries is a little misleading; there’s elements of propaganda to them as well (and I have to point that out, even though I agree with much of the points of view that Herzog and Moore take).

Still, this is a film that pleases the eyes quite a bit, even if some of it is unsettling when you think of the ramifications. There is a lot to think about but one wonders that since the politicians of most of the developed countries can’t see beyond their own narrow self-interest if they really have the ability to see the survival of the species long-term. Kinda makes you think.

I wish Herzog had been a little less in the camera eye and ear here; he’s a great interviewer, yes, but there are times that I wondered if the documentary was about him and not so much about who he was interviewing and what he was filming. Never a good sign.

That doesn’t mean he isn’t one of the great documentarians on the planet, which he is. He makes some very valid points here, takes some incredible pictures and finds some interesting, clever people to chat with. Normally, all that would add up to a much higher mark in my books, but I couldn’t help thinking that a little less Herzog and a little more silence would have done this film more justice.

WHY RENT THIS: Some gorgeous and desolate footage. Lots of quirky interview subjects.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Herzog and his obsession with dreams is front and center, perhaps a bit too much.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s nothing remotely offensive here or unsuitable for small children; however they may wind up being a bit fidgety and the animals and landscapes may not appeal to them much.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is dedicated to critic Roger Ebert, an early supporter of Herzog’s work.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is an abundant amount of extra footage shot by Herzog and Kaiser, as well as an interview of Herzog by filmmaker Jonathan Demme.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.2M on an unreported production budget; the movie in all likelihood made its budget back but probably not much more.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Good