Reel Peak Films

Fly Review: Some High-Flying Lovebirds

Hot Docs 2024

8 mins read

(USA, 120 min.)
Dir. Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau
Programme: Special Presentations (International premiere)


Several times during the BASE jumping documentary Fly, one hears director Shaul Schwarz ask the same question to the interviewees who perform the film’s death-defying leaps. He asks what they might say to audiences if they’re no longer here when the film screens. The results differ. Some jumpers brush the question off. They say they don’t worry about that. Others, however, accept the strong possibility that jumping from tremendous heights brings a heightened risk of death. Either way, the jumpers don’t want pity. If they die while flying, at least they would have lived to the fullest and gone out doing what they loved.

The proximity to death flies chillingly close to audiences in the anxiety inducing Fly. The documentary features dizzying leaps while chronicling the pursuits of BASE jumpers in search of the next adrenaline rush. BASE jumping refers to daredevil hurdles from building tops, antennas, spans, and earth. The jumpers in Fly favour the latter two ledges. They plunge fearlessly from bridges, mountains, and cliffs. The film offers leaps high in the Fjords of Norway with Amber and Espen, jumps from cliffs in the Moab desert with Jimmy and Marta, and high-flying soars with a tag team of jumpers that includes Scotty and Dicko.

Some jumpers, like Espen, Amber, and Scotty, love the high stakes feat of flying with wing suits. They perform aerial acrobatics in gear that makes them look like colourful flying squirrels. Spreading their wings, they navigate bravura aerodynamics, veering dangerously close to mountain ridges, treetops, gondolas, and whatever obstacles could clip their wings. (Surprisingly, the film features nary a run-in with a high-flying bird.) They’re going incredibly fast, too, and the edge-of-your-seat POV shots convey just how ridiculously they careen through the air. Featuring vertiginous cinematography shot from the jumpers’ perspectives and offering grand whooshes on the soundtrack as they hurtle through the air, Fly thrilling captures the rush that inspires the jumpers to feel alive by cheating death.

Schwarz and fellow director Christina Clusiau ensure that Fly offers truly awesome big screen viewing. However, they treat the sport with a curious eye to understand what drives people over the edge. Fly might inspire some viewers to take up the sport, but audiences who haven’t yet taken a gander at BASE jumping seem unlikely to take the plunge after a screening. The even-handedness, and awesome spectacle of the sport, admittedly means that the story takes a while to find its footing. However, it’s a balanced approach that dramatically captures the extremity of extreme sports.

Central to the insatiable love for danger that goes hand in hand with BASE jumping is the work of Jimmy and Marta. The veterans enjoy their status as the “mom and pop” of BASE jumping. They teach a generation of jumpers how to fly safely. Their lessons emphasize the danger, but also articulate that it’s an inevitably that people die. Not just in the sport, but in daily life. BASE jumping might just accelerate it.

Marta and Jimmy also offer two poles through which one gets the risks and rewards of the sport. Marta is a living legend, a fearless woman who has barely had a scratch while excelling in the sport for 30 years. Jimmy, meanwhile, embodies a freer spirit. He’s not the adrenaline-junkie of the film, but he always seems to want to up the ante. Marta, though, maintains a sense of their limits during interviews. They use parachutes, and there are some jumps she knows are simply unsafe to do. Jimmy, meanwhile, dabbles with the thought of taking flight in a wing-suit. He always gives the higher precipice a second glance.

Fly observes as Marta and Jimmy teach BASE jumpers how to use their parachutes, how to land, and how to execute the right leap for a safe jump. Their classes are particularly nerve-wracking watches. One knows that the students have less experience, so every jump ups the odds for a fatality.

They also throw an annual event for BASE jumpers across the States. It’s an annual summit that unites a distinct community. The party includes a class photo that’s both a high and a low. One interviewee notes that, invariably, someone from the previous class photo isn’t around for the next one. Everyone knows that someone in the group will likely die or have a life-altering accident. Watching Fly is like watching people play Russian roulette. But it’s impossible to look away.

The film therefore has something of a perverse drive. Watching Fly, one knows the worst is coming. There are close brushes with death, captured through Go-Pros mounted atop the jumpers’ helmets and microphones that convey their rapid breath and fear. (But, also, the true yee-haw inspiring thrill.) Schwarz and Clusiau don’t judge their characters for their actions, nor do they try to push them either way over the edge. Any second thoughts or cases of one-upmanship arise naturally. That’s just the sport.

Fly explores the (ir)responsibility of jumping through the three love stories that fuel it. Besides Jimmy and Marta, and Espen and Amber, Fly observes as Scotty falls in love with fellow jumper Julia. As each couple shares their mutual passion, they also acknowledge that even love can’t defy gravity. At what point, the film asks, does life offer enough of a leap?

In the fashion of Sunshine Superman or this year’s equally dizzying and thrilling Skywalkers: A Love Story, Fly takes audiences to great heights. (If there’s a drawback to Fly, it’s that Skywalkers somewhat beat it to the punch this year with a different daring-do and a bit more narrative focus.) In Fly though, experiences the bracing, nerve-rattling, and exciting high of the plunge as one careens towards the earth with the jumpers and the cameras. Whether one prefers the safety of a parachute, or the safety net of experiencing the jump from a theatre, is up to you. But those leaps look awfully big in a theatre.

Fly screened at Hot Docs 2024 and will stream on Disney+, Hulu, and National Geographic later this year.


Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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