Thoughts

The Extreme Sports Documentaries that have got us hooked

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Alex Honnold as he makes a record free-climb at El Captain Extreme Sports Documentaries can be an emotional, exhilarating and all-round engaging watch. They expose us to incredible feats of human strength and determination, but also add many additional layers including context and narration that somehow help us connect to the amazing athletes whose stories are explored. A writer who spends their days behind a screen is about as far-removed from the world of free climbing or ultra marathon running as possible, but people from all walks of life can still find inspiration in the feats that are carried out on screen when watching an extreme sports doc. Here’s a quick roundup of some of the most recent adrenaline-fueled documentaries that have got us hooked. Conquering land… Ultra-runners are some of the most stubborn, determined and passionate athletes on earth, they also make fascinating subjects for documentary filmmakers. Karl Meltzer: Made to Be Broken takes us on a journey alongside “Speedgoat” Meltzer as he attempts to conquer his nemesis: setting a new world record for the Appalachian Trail. Meltzer has already run this 3,500km trail that stretches across Eastern America twice before, but in his third and final race will he finally be able to better the previous record of 46 days, 6 hours and 6 minutes? On the other end of the spectrum, Hungarian athlete and filmmaker Balasz Simonyi’s 2017 Ultra charts the experiences of four “everyday athletes” – French father and son Gilles and Angel, German Annett and fellow Hungarian, Bela – as they run the 246km historical hyper-marathon in Greece. Simonyi himself is no stranger to the odyssey, having finished the Spartathlon an awe-inspiring total of 5 times, so he’s able to convey all the pain, triumph, faith and effort of the quartet in a way that really makes an impact. Occasionally, we also get to take a glimpse at the darker side of professional sports through such documentaries, such as 2017’s Icarus. Its summary reads like the plot of a thriller novel, a seemingly innocent cyclist from Colorado (Brian Fogel) comes up with a plan to win an amateur cycling race. But as the film unfolds, we’re introduced to the illegal practice of Olympic doping and Putin’s “most wanted” whistleblower also makes an appearance. It’s gripping stuff, sure enough, so it should come as no surprise that it won the 2018 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. David and Goliath stories, in which an underdog goes up against a seemingly insurmountable challenge, have a universal appeal. We all root for the unsuspecting hero, but there’s something even more appealing when that challenge is Mother Nature herself. There’s nothing quite so inspirational as pure human courage, something that Alex Honnold has in bucketloads. The 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and 2019 BAFTA for Best Documentary-winning Free Solo charts the grueling journey of pro climber Honnold as he prepares to scale the 900m vertical rock face of Yosemite Park’s El Captain mountain. With no equipment, no support and no fellow climbers. The film takes us inside his mind, showing that as much as physical preparation certainly played a fundamental role in Honnold’s climb to the top, so too did the intense mindset and visualization work he did beforehand. And sea…. 
Whilst not exactly a placid pastime, surfing isn’t really the stuff that extreme sports documentary dreams are made of. Anyone who’s ever lived near or been on holiday to some prime waves has probably tried their hand at surfing or bodyboarding at least once. The story of Nathan Fletcher, however, is about as extreme as you can get when it comes to surfing the waves. Fueled by psycho actives, Fletcher had a dream: to drop from a helicopter onto a 20-foot wave, aptly named aerial surfing. Heavy Water tells us Fletcher’s story in documentary form, while also shining a spotlight on one of surfing’s most prominent and influential families. Raw, provocative and unfiltered, like filmmaker Michael Oblowitz says: “I’m not trying to do the whitewash of surfing. I’m trying to show surfing the way I grew up in it.”
Ever since Ahab got it in his head to chase the white whale, we’ve been compelled to watch and follow endeavors at sea. Extreme sports docs set at sea quite literally expand our horizons, giving us access to a world that very few of us will ever get to experience first hand. Especially when that involves making history. Losing Sight of Shore is a brilliant, female-focused documentary (sadly, still very much a rarity even in 2019) that follows the Cox-less Crew as they row across the Pacific Ocean. The four members of the crew made global headlines for embarking on their journey from America to Australia without supporting trailing boats, spending a total of nine months overcoming extreme and heart-stopping challenges. The film itself is a mix of GoPro footage recorded by the women themselves at sea and professional shots of on and near shore events, which manages to convey perfectly the psychological stress and claustrophobic nature of spending three quarters of a year on a boat.

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