Documentary Corner: The Dawn Wall (2017)

Anna Marczynska looks back at one documentary sure to get the heart pumping and the nerves on edge

Anna Marczynska
7th December 2019

Whether you’re a climber or not, this is a documentary that will keep your palms sweaty and get you excited about going outside – maybe even try climbing, who knows?

The Dawn Wall is the name of a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, that has not been free-climbed before. The film follows the events that led Tommy Cladwell to do that for the first time ever, accompanied by Kevin Jorgeson. It was made by a climbing film directorial duo of Peter Mortimer and Josh Lowell, who are no strangers to this genre.

If you’ve never even considered climbing, the film will guide you, explain the terms and make you part of the experience. If you are a climber, you’ll empathise with the need and the frustration, that pushes you to keep trying and complete a route, even with your fingertips bleeding. However, what builds the tension, what makes you root for Tommy is his unbelievable childhood and life-changing events during his trip to Kyrgyzstan, not to mention the contagious enthusiasm he has for climbing. 

Kevin has this endearing personality of a guy, who seemingly finds himself out of nowhere, in the centre of one of the biggest events in climbing history. There is, however, nothing accidental about his story, as in climbing rarely anything is, and he would not be a part of this climb, were it not for his supreme ability. The film skilfully contrasts both climbers, in order for the viewers to stay engaged and identify with at least one of them. It also doesn’t fall into the trap of being overly dramatic, which can sometimes happen.

Not only was this film a difficult undertaking for the climbers, it was also a challenging shoot. Unlike studio movies, this one required highly skilled camera operators, that are also able to stay thousands of feet off the ground on a side of the mountain. Films like this are worth watching, if only for the amazing shots of the climber’s fingers wrapping around a piece of rock with a backdrop of Yosemite.

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