For Alex Honnold the danger of death is more immediate than for others. Free Solo, a documentary directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi beautifully captures Honnold’s struggle to realise his dream – free soloing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Climbing 3,200 feet of sheer rock took Alex 3 hours and 56 minutes. The practice, however, took years. He was the first to came out of this challenge alive.
This documentary gives a glimpse into a community where death is not a distant worry. Where simple mistakes, like putting your thumb in the wrong place have grave consequences and usually one outcome. Yet despite the dangers it is wonderful to see the portrayal of Alex, of people who care about him, of other climbers who tried but failed or who don’t dare to. How they think and where do they think their limits lie.
What makes this film different is that nobody claimed to understand Alex and his need to defy the limits of human achievement. The cinematography captures the beauty as well as horror of the human achievement. Seeing a human on a steep rock fighting to stay alive and conquering his fears makes you feel small. Yet, it gives you hope that no matter how small we are some of us will defy all odds. “You will face your fears because your goal demands it” Hannold says.
You have sympathy for Alex, you watch him struggle and achieve what no one has done before him. Yet, most of us won’t ever understand him because, as he said of his girlfriend Sanni, want to be happy, fulfilled and have a good time. That’s not his goal. He wants to pursue his path with excellence. I think this also goes for the documentary crew, who needed to take on far bigger risks than a regular crew.
Their worries are discussed numerous times. It is rare to see documentaries that are aware of how their filming might influence the process of what’s being filmed. How this project might turn out to be a distraction and contribute to Alex’s death. Both Alex’s passion for free soloing and the filmmakers’ passion for documenting incredible stories comes through.