Looking for Exits
In the high Alps, above the clouds (or sometimes within them - also known as the white room) Ellen Brennan climbs to rocky crags and jumps off wearing a flight suit that allows her to soar significant distances before landing with the aid of a parachute.
BASE jumping is illegal in many of the best spots in the United States which is why many jumpers, including Brennan, live in France, where most locations are legal. Rather than building a traditional narrative with a story arc in this documentary, filmmaker Kristoffer Hegnsvad explores concepts like freedom and flight, and feelings like fear and joy.
She may be an adrenaline junkie (her former life was as a critical care nurse) but Ellen Brennan is no dummy. Her calm and thoughtful manner is one of the many elements which make this film so watchable and so intriguing. Of course, she says, when you stand on the edge of a cliff and prepare to jump, everything tells you not to. How to control and calm those voices is part of what fascinates her. Unlike many other people in the sport though, she is a conservative jumper and when her inner voice tells her that conditions are too dangerous, she always listens. One of the intense scenes in the film occurs when Brennan talks about the friends she has lost. Most of these were people she considered safe and she tries to learn from their accidents. Often, though, she can tell that someone will die soon feels the need to distance herself from these individuals.
Seldom will you see such a happy person on screen. Brennan describes the feeling she gets from jumping as euphoria and you can see it in her face. Why would you do anything else, she wonders. Why would anyone be satisfied with a normal life when they could feel so much more? Footage of Brennan soaring on the wind, smiling and laughing, is amazing. The euphoria she describes is apparent as a near-religious experience, which she describes as becoming both nothing and everything. Those insights and nuances are what Hegnsva is after, not just spectacular shots of people diving off cliffs. In fact, Hegnsva is very stingy with his shots of flight and it is not until the end of the film that we really see Brennan soar. It is worth the wait. Carving a beautiful path through the sky is what it is all about.
Looking for Exits (the initial point of the flight path is called the exit) is an adventure film but it is more about philosophy and existence than extreme sport. Much of the film is composed of scenes of Brennan and friends hiking through the mountains up to jumps. It's worth remembering that these athletes spend so much more time hiking than they actually do flying. Brennan talks about her love of the outdoors and that even if she can't jump she appreciates being out in nature. The film is very sensitive to the conditions of the sky, with many many shots of clouds as the rise or swirl around rocky peaks. It also features an effective dissonant score. It is divided into a series of chapters (with subtitles and altitudes) which in another film might impose a clunky structure. However in this context it really works, as Hegnsva chooses a few illustrative snippets to represent Brennan, the sport and the limits of human endeavor. Brennan is a perfect subject - joyous, thoughtful, funny and full of contractions: she's scared of cows and cycling while being the fastest woman jumper in the world.
Do not miss this one. The film plays twice during the festival.
Friday, May 13, 2016 - 7:00pm at Vancity Theatre (1181 Seymour St)
Sunday, May 15, 2016 - 6:15pm at Cinematheque (1131 Howe St.)