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Magnetic Mountains

DirectorSteve Wakeford
Producer Everyfield
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateMonday, 13 November 2017
Rating 4 out of 5


In 2012, Steve Wakeford became so stressed from his job in sports broadcasting that he suffered a collapsed lung and was hospitalised. While recovering, he re-evaluated his life, rented out his swish London pad, bought a camper van and hit the road, swapping one high-octane lifestyle for another: climbing. Pretty soon he was hanging out in Chamonix, a town that can, unless you keep a healthy perspective on things, push you closer to the edge than you might have intended or even realised. In 2014, Wakeford found himself crossing that threshold, taking what might easily have been a fatal 70m fall from a goulotte on the Petites Jorasses. Whisked away by helicopter, we first meet him in this powerful and thought-provoking documentary sat in a wheelchair looking out across the Chamonix range from the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car station at the start of a long and painful process of rehabilitation.

So far, so grimly familiar. But while this film does follow the trajectory of Wakeford’s long recovery, it is much more than a personal journey. He uses the trauma of his accident and the period of self-doubt and self-examination after it as the starting point for an enquiry into a far wider enquiry into the psychological consequences and moral implications of an adventurous. Talking to leading climbers and skiers, psychologists, family and friends, Wakeford is offered a range of insights into his own behaviour and that of his at times overly narrow tribe: what motivates them, whether what they do is justified, how selfish they are and whether the risks they take are properly acknowledged.

Surprisingly few films like this get made, not in comparison to the huge output of adventure movies produced in time for the big film festivals in November, the best of which get toured round the world. The danger is often apparent; that’s part of the appeal of these things. The long-term consequences of that danger, physical and emotional, are rarely discussed. It’s as though risk-takers would rather get on and rationalise their choices for themselves rather than be brought face to face with less palatable outcomes, for themselves and others. It’s a credit to Wakeford and producer and camerawoman Menna Pritchard, working on her first feature-length documentary, that this enquiry is open-minded and engaging but rarely censorious.

Some of the interviews Wakeford conducts stand out as particularly moving and even disturbing. Davide De Masi, for example, talks about the loss of his fiancé, the skier Liz Daley, who perished in an avalanche aged just 29. Among the climbers he talks to, the best insights come from those who have suffered similar and worse accidents to Wakeford: Paul Pritchard talking about the near-fatal head injury he suffered on Totem Pole and Andy Parkin discussing his recovery from an equally serious fall he took in Switzerland. There are some tough opinions on offer from sports ethicist Mike McNamee, some of them rather unfair, and some useful questions asked about the impact social media has on the choices adventurers make.

I thought the best advice Wakeford gets during his journey came from Martine Roussel, the nurse who cared for him in hospital. In one of the best scenes in the film, she takes him by the hand, looks into his eyes and asks him what he’s learned from his brush with death. It’s really an invitation for a young man she wisely perceives as being perhaps overly intense to soften his focus a little and take in the human world around him. As it turns out, Wakeford really is on a personal journey, as well as an ethical one, as a relationship with Pritchard blossoms in the course of their work together. He becomes a parent, first to Pritchard’s daughter Ffion and as the film ends with the birth of their son Ray. The prospect of fatherhood doesn’t prevent him from returning, after much soul-searching, to the scene of his accident to climb the pitch that had spat him out with such devastating consequences. It might have made the film overly sentimental, but Pritchard manages her growing personal involvement with a discrete honesty that simply deepens it.

Given the film took three years, I imagine financing it wasn’t easy but the commitment was worth it. It’s an accomplished and valuable piece of work. The impact of social media and its ravenous appetite for footage has had an inevitable consequence on those trying to eke out a living from their passion. This is the kind of careful, slow, well-considered work getting squeezed out in the commercial stampede the outdoors has become. But when it comes to fighting gravity, terms and conditions will always apply.

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