Skywalkers: A Love Story
(USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Jeff Zimbalist
Programme: US Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
One joy of non-fiction film is how it takes us onto journeys we couldn’t normal travel. We can visit the edges of space or the depths of the ocean. We can witness events that we’d otherwise be unable to apprehend. And we can be invited to share the most intimate experiences. With Skywalkers: A Love Story, Jeff Zimbalist and his subjects bring audiences on one of these beautifully vicarious ride. They let us climb heights both physical and emotional all from the comfort of our seats.
The film follows a pair of “rooftoppers,” aka Internet superstars whose fame is directly related to their death defying stunts and Instagram savvy. There’s Angela Nikolau, a strong-willed Russian woman whose parents were circus performers. Her early years were spent both with dance instruction and acrobatic training, so when she decided to climb to the top of buildings, she realized it was part of a greater mode of artistic creation. She suppressed her fears and climbs not simply for self-reward, but to craft indelible images that stood as a form of broader expression.
Vanya Beerkus was already well established within the community of Russian rooftoppers and celebrated for his feats of daring. We see how he’s drawn into the orbit of Angela and, despite being used to working alone, his skills and experience begin to be reshaped by her flair for presentation.
Combined, they expand their horizons travelling the world to surreptitiously (read: illegally) clamber to the tops of skyscrapers along with photographic and drone equipment. The resulting images are quite literally breathtaking, vertiginous plunging vistas that frame the rooftoppers in ways both beautiful and unsettling. The entire experience takes the iconic image of “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” and dials it up for the Internet generation, with one-handed grasps at the top of cranes, or selfies posted while leaning over multi-story drops, which escalate the impact.
Of course, the entire film could have been simply clips of these climbs, and we’re reminded a few times of just how deadly a risk it can be. Many of Angela’s former colleagues themselves have fallen tragically, and it’s easy to see how one moment of death-defiance captured by a lens could be catastrophic the next.
At the same time, the same sense of appreciation for the moment and the clear fear about future complications is reflected in the relationship between Vanya and Angela. It’s evident that there are specific changes in the dynamic of their climbs and, as one of them is tasked with looking out for the other, their pursuits create moments of conflict. There’s a line between being driven and being self-delusional that’s crossed at times, and the ability to push oneself to the literal edge depends, of course, on being constantly aware where that edge actually is.
It’s here that the film becomes more than simply one of those vicarious adventures. The story of their relationship intertwines directly with the preparation and execution of one of their most challenging of climbs. In the best of ways, it’s this aspect that reminds one of the Oscar-winning Free Solo, where beyond the act that is being celebrated are the real human concerns that both fuel and frustrate the endeavour.
Zimbalist’s camera captures many the impactful moments on the ground, but during the climbs themselves, the subjects film their own story so that no external influence will affect their acts. So much of what makes the film succeed is how these disparate elements are interwoven, the editing beautifully articulating the various swings of emotion as well as maximizing the impact of the resulting climbs. Even as global events such as the invasion of Ukraine affect their livelihoods, the two must navigate not only the vagaries of air travel and visa requirements, but also the nature of their own affection for one another.
Skywalkers: A Love Story lives up to both aspects of its title, providing a deeply human tale along with the climbing moments we experience through proxy. Combined audiences are treated to quite a ride, with our hearts are lifted almost as much as the iconic image that the entire story line leads up to. Part action film, part romantic drama, part rom-com, and part travelogue, these disparate elements combine thanks to Zimbalist’s assured filmmaking. It’s certain to be one of the most adored documentaries of the year.