Fitz Cahall's inspiring film "35," about one rock-climber's unique 35th birthday challenge, won the Best Short Documentary award at the Banff Mountain Film Festival this past week, which got me thinking about another of his short climbing films, The Road from Karakol, which I had a chance to see earlier this fall.
I had only a vague idea of what to expect when I showed up at the Patagonia store in New York's Meatpacking District one night last month for a screening of The Road from Karakol. I knew it was a short film -- 25 minutes -- by Fitz Cahall, a climber and multimedia writer, director, and producer perhaps best known for his Dirtbag Diariesseries. I knew it starred world-class alpinist Kyle Dempster, who has won climbing's highest honor, the Piolet d'Or, and who had shot the footage himself during a solo biking and climbing trip. I knew the trip was somewhere in Central Asia, but I did not know -- and this is a little embarrassing -- where Karakol is.
I also didn't know this charming film's rather charming backstory: Dempster basically showed up on Cahall's doorstep with a hard drive full of footage. Cahall dug into it and realized, quickly, that he had something worth pursuing, both in the journey itself and in Dempster's magnetic, occasionally off-kilter camera presence.
It turns out Karakol is in Kyrgyzstan, and Dempster headed there in 2011 with the goal of biking across the country via abandoned Soviet-era backroads, climbing as many Kyrgyz peaks as he could along the way. He had never bike-toured before, didn't know the language, and encountered roads that, when they even existed, were often not rideable. As the film goes on, things get occasionally hairy, as they inevitably will on any journey worth calling an adventure and Dempster becomes increasingly reliant on the camera as his only friend, a place to offload his doubts and fears. "The camera became kind of like my 'Wilson'," he said after the screening, alluding to Tom Hanks's volleyball-friend in the movie Cast Away. "You need something to talk to..."
The overall tone, which I'd describe as goofball bro meets iron-willed hardass, is set with the opening scene: Dempster naked by the side of a raging river, explaining to the camera that he needs to swim across in order to continue on his quixotic way. It is funny -- nearly a "Jackass" stunt -- but the stakes are real: he's hundreds of miles from anything, alone, with only the possessions on a bike. He is honest through the entire film -- there is no false bravado to mask his hesitancy and reluctance, though there is some nervous laughter.
The naked river crossing is actually deep into his journey and from that comical opening, the film takes us back to the start, on the paved and (relatively) plush roads leading out of Karakol and towards the mountains. You roll along with Dempster, through all manner of obstacles, and by the time you're back on that riverbank with him, you will have become enamored of this funny little story and the (naked) man behind it, as well as more apprised of the situation's seriousness. Dempster had basically backed himself into a corner, with river crossings behind him just as treacherous as the one in front of him, and couldn't see any option but to swim it. He was not happy about it, and nervous enough to record what amounts to a video last will and testament, a goodbye to family back home.
The voiceover can be a little overcooked -- "adventure exists at the intersection of imagination and the ridiculous" -- but in the end it's the kind of film, I wrote in a note to myself, that makes you want to test yourself, to go out there, and to be goofy and have fun while doing it. Which is to say: it accomplishes the goal of any good adventure tale and does so while keeping you entertained, mostly at Dempster's expense. Not to ruin the ending, but he does climb some peaks along the way, and eventually makes it back to civilization. It's a sweet little ode to the enduring value of quixotic characters like Dempster, one man pointing his compass at a goal on the horizon and continuing towards it unwaveringly.
As the film's closing credits rolled, alongside outtakes of some of the trip's more vodka-soaked moments (and there were many -- nearly everyone Kyrgyz man he met, including the cops, plied him with booze), Dempster bounded to the front of the room for a Q&A session. It was his second day ever in New York City, and he was clearly energized by it, though somewhat abashed at being in the spotlight. "That, ladies and gentlemen, is a lesson in the dangers of full honesty cinematography."
Soon, he was asked about the nudity after the screening. "Well, getting naked to cross the river: mostly I didn't want my clothes to get wet," he said, before copping to another motivation. "But yeah, it's funny. I mean, if you're going to go to the trouble of documenting it all, you might as well have fun with it, right?"