Many of the most well-known documentaries recently made have been by young filmmakers trying to face unsettling issues with their family that have long been swept under the carpet. The standards were set for this achingly personal vein by Bing Liu’s 2018 Minding the Gap, which for sure is among 21st century’s greatest works. Liu asks his mother distressing questions regarding her decisions that put his well-being in danger while he sits next to the camera, ensuring he is in the frame, too. This technique is far from the reality show-style manipulation, but instead a method to keep him accountable, bringing his vulnerability to the light just as much as his subject.
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In this way, we can also feel the complexity of his outlook. The emotional obstacles are visible on his face, halting his way to forgiveness. In a way, the camera is turned on us, the viewers, making us from passive observers to active participants, reflecting the ways we have shaped our family stories, and how they may have stood in our way of fully understanding them the way they really are.
In two of 2021’s best nonfiction installments, we have explored the massive void created by the absence of a paternal figure in the lives of those he left behind after his badly timed decease. Ry Russo-Young bravely found a way to understand her mother’s sperm donor, Tom, in Nuclear Family, a three-part HBO miniseries. In the series, she made an attempt to unravel the mixed feelings that blocked her way to take the next step in their relationship, as a result of his battle for custody. Now we have Torn, also a profound and deeply emotional movie. The movie is directed by the newly featured Max Lowe, son of the renowned mountain climber Alex, known as a “risk controller.” Alex passed away on October 5th, 1999 not due to a fall but an avalanche while climbing the fourteenth highest mountain in the world, Shishapangma in Tibet. The bodies of Alex and David Bridges, his cameraman, are yet to be found, leaving Conrad Anker, Alex’s closest friend and climbing partner, to stumble back to their tent in shock.
One of the most significant things that Nuclear Family and Torn achieved is how they diminish the great labels placed on these men, a villain in Tom’s case and Superman for Alex’s, to roll up the curtain and unveil the human being behind it. Alex’s widowed wife, Jenni, admits that it’s her husband’s characteristics resembling a “wild animal” that attracted her. She refused to question her feelings for him as he never hesitated to take on an adventure, choosing to go to the wilderness of Antarctica over his family at Christmas. It was this instinct that three months after Alex’s decease, Jenni found herself having feelings for Conrad, who Alex was once jealous with for his familial responsibility. Conrad took all the guilt Alex once had about ignoring his boys’ needs, and he was tormented by his seemingly unfair survival, leading him to be determined to become the father figure his friend could not pull off. It began with taking Alex’s children to Disneyland, a dream he couldn’t fulfill.
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The footage that Conrad took of Max screaming joyfully on a roller coaster is among the several times Torn made my eyes well with tears.
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Considering the subject matter of the movie, not to mention National Geographic’s distribution, it is natural to expect this work to be jammed with spectacular landscapes, and it does come up to audiences’ expectations. But the most memorable sights of Torn is probably the expressions on the faces of Max and his family as they start to earn the yearning sense of tranquility and catharsis, which has taken them over a decade to reach. Max, as a filmmaker, is meticulous in featuring the hardship of accepting Conrad as his father. He was much more attached to Alex while his younger siblings, Sam and Isaac, had barely any significant memory of their biological father except from his achievements. As Isaac directly asks Max why he’d want to film about aspects of their lives that haven’t been substantially addressed, his words made me reflect on how the camera lens allows the audience to come face to face with what we want to run away from. Though Alex and his motivations are still mysterious even to his immediate family, it is worth wondering if the constant presence of a camera gives him the consolation he needs to head into the unknown.
The last sound of Torn is an exhalation. No need for any additional words. Cinematographers Logan Schneider and Chris Murphy did such an amazing job, managing to capture the interactions so intimate that not for even a split second does any of us think or feel that a significant word or glance is staged. There must have been an implicit trust between the subjects and crew, which allows us to come as close as possible to their personal journey. Also, thanks to Max, nothing intrudes upon it. There are moments where the score, composed by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, bulges, but it never outweighs the emotional truth set in the footage. It is also aware of moments to keep the sacred silence, especially when we feel the burden of the family’s loss. I could go on and on about the movie’s last 30 minutes, but I’d rather let you enjoy it yourself. But I can tell you this. Torn can make you shed your tears in a raw, unpredictable and absolutely earned way. Max Lowe invites the audience into the most private transformative periods of his family, and he manages to conquer the Mount Everest of the soul to make such a cinematic present that touches the heart. Not many movies could ever do this.
Torn is now available in select theaters.