National Geographic’s Free Solo winning the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature was the first surprise of Oscar night 2019 — the film wasn’t the populist choice (that’d be RBG) nor the critical favorite (Minding the Gap). Its honor seems like a compromise, despite it being a documentary that is well-made and one that has resonated with audiences to the tune of more than $16 million at the box office.
This might not have felt like the most deserving or exciting outcome as those other two expected feature documentary wins would have, at least to their respective, passionate fans. And that’s unfortunate. Directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (with fellow winners, producers Evan Hayes and Shannon Dill) not only made an incredibly thrilling film about a historic sports — and human — achievement, but they also made a film that engages with the documentary medium in powerful ways — ways that some films ignore to their detriment.
Documentaries inherently involve ethics, and one question always pops up: does the filming change the reality of the situation at hand? Almost always, the answer is yes. To what degree and to what effect that happens is the next question.
One form of documentary, observational cinema, hides the filmmaker’s presence. The form is not inherently ethically questionable, but it does risk manipulating audiences without them realizing it, and this has been a topic of analysis throughout the history of the medium. Take Thomas Harlan’s 1975 documentary Torre Bela, which tells the story of an agricultural cooperative movement in Portugal following a time of revolution in the country. The camera is “a fly on the wall,” hiding the fact the director is a German man who has just recently come to the country. In 2011, the documentary Red Line investigated the influence that Harlan had on the earlier film, which became symbolic for the revolutionary time period, alleging that events were orchestrated to make certain revolutionary action more complex and more dramatic.
Ethics are often intertwined with documentaries about politics, and one of this year’s nominees, RBG, leaves out a lot of self-reflection. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a culturally and politically powerful figure; is the purpose of the film to simply reinforce that? The documentary doesn’t get into it.
When such ethical questions are considered, they can elevate a film, and they do so with Free Solo. Without the cameras, Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park could’ve resulted in his death. But the presence of the cameras outwardly added a layer of pressure and potential distraction, and Chin and Vasarhelyi appear well aware of this fact throughout their film. Chin actually appears on screen in the movie, labeled as director, and we see him pose this question in interviews — and thus, to us.
We witness a conversation between Chin and his crew about the issue, as well as dialogue between the filmmakers and Honnold. The discussion is not only highlighted, but it also asks the audience to be a part of the very clear ethical dilemma, to contemplate it with them all. It’s such a focus, in fact, that it becomes its own storyline, and one of the key dramatic moments in the film is when Honnold stops his first attempt of the climb, and Chin and crew reflect on how that means that Honnold doesn’t feel tied to the cameras. It also certainly helps to have a subject as singular and passionate as Honnold, someone who establishes a clear distance from the production itself.
But not only does the engagement alleviate ethical concerns, but it also enhances other parts of the dramatic narrative. That storyline is woven into other storylines, such as one following Honnold’s relationship with Sanni McCandless and her concerns about his climb, mainly in her questioning of why he has to do it and her asking him to involve her more in its deliberation. The dialogue between Honnold and McCandless works in harmony with the dialogue between Honnold and Chin, creating an overarching question about the act of seeing, itself.
Granted, other Best Documentary Feature contenders engage with the act of filming, as well. There’s a standout moment in Minding the Gap when director Bing Liu wonders what he should do about the abuse that’s occurring during the making of the film. But, and this is not to any detriment, the film, as noted by Liu himself, started out as a Frederick Wiseman-esque observational film. It’s a testament to his powerful filmmaking that he adapted to where the film was going as he needed to. Still, there’s something more invigorating about how the ethical question of filming is explicitly in the blood of Free Solo.
When one of Free Solo‘s cinematographers, Mikey Schaeffer, looks away from the camera display as he films Honnold’s climb, it means something more than just audience reflection. It allows us to feel truly engaged with this historic feat that we inherently know Alex ends up accomplishing, more so than we would have had he question been left unposed. It makes Free Solo an investigation of the documentary medium itself, and a worthy winner of the Academy Award.