Birdman Of The Karakoram
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateSunday, 20 December 2009
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There are two parallel traditions in the history of modern British exploration. The heavily sponsored, over-produced extravaganzas that capture the public's imagination irrespective of what's actually achieved, and the quirky, low-budget but wildly imaginative journeys that barely ruffle the waters beyond the tiny group of like-minded souls who understand what's involved.
It takes about three seconds of Birdman Of The Karakoram to figure out which of these two traditions John Silvester belongs to. We see him first taking a last look around the crammed living room of his small cottage in North Wales. This is not the lair of a Ranulph Fiennes, on the blower to his sponsor, but someone rather more ethereal.
Twenty years ago the sport of paragliding barely existed, and pioneers were figuring out just how those darned flying parachutes might work. Now Silvester is leading the charge in a magical period of aerial adventure that has more in common with early Himalayan explorers like Eric Shipton than the hopped-up Red Bull mania that characterises so much of what's shown on television. This film offers an insight into that amazing story.
Like the mountaineer he once was, the challenge in Silvester's world is to do new routes, skimming summits of peaks it would take days to reach and more days to climb on foot, but after only a couple of hours by paraglider. The most engaging parts of this film show Silvester wrestling and cajoling the wing above his head in scenery that is beyond spectacular with the nauseously green film-maker Al Hughes trying to hang onto his breakfast as he records Silvester in his element.
The structure of the film is fairly conventional, with a bit too much of the story explained in the narration and not enough in what we're shown. I wanted to hear more from Silvester about his motivation and what must have been a long learning process in a sport that has gone through a rapid technological development. Not surprisingly for a man who likes flying away, Silvester seems cleverly evasive.
But the wild drama of the footage Hughes brought back from his long and risky flight with Silvester is quite staggering and it's worth getting hold of the film for this alone. I can see why the paragliding community loves Birdman Of The Karakoram. For the rest of us, a little more by way of explanation would have made all the difference.