Producer Hot Aches
Reviewed byEd Douglas
DateMonday, 18 November 2013
It's not often I'm pleased to have wasted a day, but in the case of Paul Diffley I'm happy to make an exception. Earlier the year I drove to Cratcliffe Tor in Derbyshire to watch Andy Cave solo Fern Hill and talk to camera about his place in the climbing firmament. That the interview, and others, were left out of Distilled is revealing about Diffley's approach to his craft and ultimately what he's trying to achieve in Distilled, his latest film.
There's nothing intrinsically wrong with talking heads in a documentary, as Diffley himself illustrated in the outstanding Long Hope Route, but they sometimes act as a prop to a film-maker in a hurry or uncertain how to proceed. That Diffley and Cave are trying to get to the core of something is revealed not just in the title but the tight focus of this piece, from which Diffley has thrown extraneous material as though lightening an overloaded boat.
He is helped in this by the engaging and thoughtful commentary Andy Cave offers on his own life and on the appeal of mountains, particularly Scottish ones. This is artfully laid down over compelling footage of a clutch of Scottish classic winter routes, particularly on the Ben, from the historic grandeur of Tower Ridge to the modern classic Sidewinder. The history of these routes, in fact anything about them at all, isn't touched on and isn't necessary. They are there to illustrate what the experience of Scottish winter climbing is about, and in doing so add depth and context to the story Andy Cave is weaving.
If you've read Cave's modern mountaineering classic Learning to Breathe, then you will know the story: working-class lad escapes the pit for a life in the mountains, culminating in the landmark first ascent of Changabang's north face – and its tragic aftermath. But he's as good speaking aloud as on the page, so don't be put off if you're assuming you know enough already. The pit, he says with characteristic directness, "was like Alpine climbing in a way, just not as pretty."
The hard, short days of Scottish winter climbing, its lack of easy glamour, the trudgery of it – for want of a better word – gives this film depth and heft. "When the weather's really bad in the Alps," Cave says, "they don't go out. They stay in the hut and drink hot chocolate. In Scotland, if you only went out in good weather, you'd never go out."
So much in modern climbing's literature and media is about narrative and personalities that the physicality of it, the touch of rock under your hand, what the blast of wind in your face feels like, no longer holds centre stage. This film cleverly matches Cave's compelling life story with these core sensations that add such quality to a day in the hills. Diffley shows Cave being smothered in spindrift or scraping snow from a hold, the physical context for the unfolding narrative of his own life.
To punch this out still futher, Diffley has an actor reading a poem from Stuart B Campbell that aims to capture this distillation, over images from inside a whisky disillery, which sort of works. Other touches are less deft. At times the music feels too light, even intrusive and there are a couple of wrong notes – mentioning, for example, how useful BMC insurance is in the middle of an anecdote jarred a little.
Distilled won the people's award at Kendal, which was interesting in itself. Perhaps audiences are ready for a different kind of film-making, one that has the confidence to linger and think, rather than spin through the drama as quickly as possible. Judging by Distilled, Diffley would seem the film-maker most likely to offer something fresh over the next few years. Each new effort shows him more in control of his considerable abilities.