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“Resistance Climbing,” which appeared in this year’s Reel Rock and which I’m about to argue is one the most important climbing films of the last few years, tells a relatively simple and familiar story that I’m going to have to describe in order for my review to make sense.
When the movie begins, Andrew Bisharat (of Evening Sends) is a jaded middle-aged climbing writer, well past his sending prime, full of doubt about whether the sport he once loved has any real meaning in this age of “corporate sellouts” and “vapid influencers.” But then his friend and foil, Tim Bruns, a quintessential American idealist who believes “in the power of rock climbing to change people’s lives,” invites Bisharat out to Palestine where Bruns has spent the last decade fervently bolting routes and building a community of rock climbers. Bisharat agrees to go, less because he wants to rediscover his faith in climbing (he doesn’t think that’s possible) than because he wants to visit the house from which his grandparents were evicted in 1948, when they and 700,000 other Palestinians were displaced to make way for the newly declared nation of Israel.
In the West Bank, which has been occupied by Israel since 1967, Bisharat is amazed by the friendliness of the locals and the injustice of life under the occupation. He shares lunch with a random street vendor and sees armed settlers patrolling clifftops. He passes through militarized checkpoints where even Americans have to “be careful” with their cameras, and he meets a large cast of psyched Palestinian climbers whose faces and smiles give a new human shape to charged signifiers like “the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
One of these Palestinians is Tawfiq Najada, a scrawny grinning young man in an adidas ball cap. He’s one of Palestine’s strongest climbers, but he’s also Bedouin, which, according to Bruns, is “the most marginalized group in Palestinian society.” One of the most affecting and structurally important moments of the film comes when Bisharat gets a tour of Najada’s almost indescribably humble home. It’s a cobbled-together shack with a corrugated roof, no insulation, no door, no chinking between the mismatched panels of plywood. Najada’s only visible belongings are a few thin striped mattresses, two ancient faded rugs, a plastic chair, a homemade hangboard, and some donated climbing gear. Bisharat is entirely “unprepared to see how Tawfiq live[s]” and doesn’t know how to treat it, doesn’t know what to say, doesn’t know how to be respectful in front of Najada while also contextualizing what he’s seeing for the cameras. He bumbles along for a few agonizing seconds before resorting to, “Um, yeah. Cool,” and redirecting attention to Najada’s hangboard.
Fittingly, the narrative eventually hones in on Najada’s attempt to send his project, a very thin 5.12d, which is as hard as any Palestinian had ever climbed at the time of filming. Following the usual climbing-film formula, Najada falls several times at the top, then sends. Everyone celebrates. Bisharat then pays a visit to his grandparents’ former home, where a family of Israelis now presumably live. He cries. He steals two limes from the tree in the yard. He leaves Palestine with a new community and renewed faith that, “in its own unexpected ways, climbing still provides.”
Is the film, when looked at from a distance, a boulderfield of familiar, predictable tropes?
Yes. But before I attempt to unpack how that can be true if the film is also, as I suggest, a masterly display of storytelling, I need to qualify what I meant by the words “best climbing film” in this article’s headline. Because to be honest, I don’t actually think there can be such a thing; there’s simply too much genre variation within the field. Sam Lawson’s recent YouTube feature, “Mastery,” a meditative portrait of UK strongman Aidan Roberts’s 2022 season, is trying to do a different thing than Mellow’s delightfully core videos of strong folks crushing hard things, which are in turn vastly different from Cedar Wright’s goofball shorts like “Sufferfest” and “Safety Third,” which are shockingly different from feature films like The Alpinist or Torn, both of which explore the legacies of goofball climbers who died while pursuing our sport.
“Resistance Climbing” belongs to a genre of climbing film whose primary aim is less to make us laugh or share the psych (though it does both) than to earnestly communicate the positive impacts climbing can have on people and communities. Also in this genre are venerable Reel Rock shorts like “Black Ice,” an at-once hysterical and sobering story about a group of Black climbers from Memphis on an unlikely ice climbing trip to Montana, and “United States of Joes,” which profiles the perplexed non-climbers who live in the vicinity of the bouldering wonderland that is Joe’s Valley. But earnest stories with clear moral messages and feel-good structures are hard to get right without feeling boring, predictable, and emotionally manipulative. Yet I believe “Resistance Climbing” skirts that bullet—or nullifies it—in a fascinating way.
Most climbing films, from the uncut bangers on the Mellow YouTube channel to the epic projects at the heart of films like King Lines and Free Solo, revolve around a basic tension: A climber wants to climb a particular climb but thanks to some adversity—the climb is hard or dangerous, the weather window is closing, the trip is coming to an end—it’s unclear to the climber whether they’ll succeed. The audience is almost always aware of the outcome, but if the filmmaker does a good job, we are convinced to invest in the narrative and forget for a moment that Alex Honnold didn’t die on Freerider and that Chris Sharma has already brought 5.15b to America in the form of Jumbo Love.
The stakes of this tension, however, vary widely across the genre spectrum. Compare a film like “Resistance Climbing” to last week’s Mellow short, which features Olympian Brooke Raboutou sending Traphouse, a short powerful V13 in Fontainebleau. The stakes in Mellow’s film are intensely low—which means that its payoff is proportionally minimal. On an objective level, it probably barely matters to Raboutou whether she sends or not, and it certainly doesn’t matter to me. But mastery is fun to see, and when the filmmakers show Raboutou take multiple falls, we—the intended audience being climbers—invest some tiny part of our own emotions in Raboutou’s quest to send, which she eventually does, at which point we feel some small simulacrum of the happiness that Raboutou herself feels. From an emotional and audience-tolerance perspective, this Mellow video is an intensely easy film to make: All the filmmaker needs to do is spotlight some climbing mastery and make us identify with Raboutou’s desire to climb the boulder. We’re willing to waste the three and a half minutes required to do the rest.
A film like “Resistance Climbing,” with a run-time of 38 minutes, a wide cast of human characters, and a complicated socio-political agenda, is at once much easier and much harder from a storytelling perspective. The stakes are high, as are the payoffs; if the filmmaker can succeed in making us want to watch their film, they get to show us how the sport we love is having an incredibly positive effect on one of the world’s most marginalized communities—which in turn makes us that much more aware of that community, which can itself lead to further positive effects. But in order to make us want to watch the film, in order to convince us to open ourselves to their message, the filmmakers need to navigate the fact that every viewer comes to the film with three things: (1) our own pre-existing ideas about what the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is and how we ought to feel about it; (2) an established opinion about whether climbing does or doesn’t matter; and (3) a history of watching other climbing films featuring the world’s best climbers displaying mastery on the world’s gnarliest lines. To make their film successful, in other words, the filmmakers have to convince us to invest in their story despite the fact that many of us think we already know what they’re going to say.
Getting us to invest takes a certain subtle artfulness.
Let’s use Najada’s send as an example. When the filmmakers ask us to care about Najada’s desire to climb his 5.12d project, they’re using the exact same formula as is used in everything from Brooke Raboutou’s Traphouse montage to Alex Honnold’s desire to solo El Cap in Free Solo—except we, the viewers, aren’t intrinsically wowed by Najada’s climbing ability in the same way that we’re wowed when Raboutou dynos off a one-finger fingerlock or Honnold styles the Enduro Corner without a rope. We are reminded on an intellectual level (and this is important) that while individual climbing performance might be a function of hard work and genetics, climbing performance on a demographic level is a function of accessibility. Thanks to this reminder, we can intellectually acknowledge that Najada’s ability to live where he lives and climb 5.12d is a far greater achievement than, for instance, my own gym-honed ability to occasionally thrutch my way up climbs of that grade. But knowing something intellectually isn’t the same as knowing it emotionally—and the filmmakers here face a real challenge. Because in terms of sheer wow-power, Najada’s climbing simply cannot compare to what we’re used to seeing. This means that the filmmakers have got to use a different set of tools to make us care about whether or not Najada sends.
And you know what? I admit that when I realized the film was going to hang a good fraction of its emotional structure on Najada’s project, my bullshit detector immediately started flashing—especially since the urgency comes from Najada’s seemingly arbitrary desire to do it before Bisharat (and the cameras) return to the States. I feared the film was going to fall into the same trap that so many lazy climbing films have fallen into: films that condescendingly expect their viewers to be rapturously captured by the storytelling even though the storytellers have given us a weakly supported or entirely arbitrary set of stakes. Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi’s wildly disappointing “The Edge of the Unknown” series is guilty of this, repeatedly showing its protagonists facing supposedly dangerous situations that are in fact designed solely to keep non-climbing TV viewers from changing the channel during the commercials. Will Gadd’s Helmcken Falls episode, for instance, tells a terrifying cautionary tale about a real-life gear mistake that nearly cost Gadd his life, but it also tries to keep our attention by playing up the danger of one of Gadd’s routine falls… onto a well-placed bolt—thereby utterly scuttling at least one viewer’s trust in the whole story.
But my bullshit detector was calmed by one narratively embedded fact: Najada wants to send before Bisharat leaves. And you know what? Arbitrary though that may be, I want Najada to get what he wants. I feel that he deserves it. Like Bisharat, I held back tears when we toured Najada’s indescribably humble home. And faced with the unjust material disconnect between my life and his, I find myself far more invested in Najada getting what he wants, regardless of how arbitrary it is, than I am in whether Brooke Raboutou—an Olympian, a member of the most pedigreed climbing family of all time—sends yet another V13. I want karmic justice for Najada. I want him to get a win from somewhere. But as the filmmakers have carefully demonstrated, the Israelis are unlikely to walk back 60 years of brutal occupation just because a few liberal Americans feel bad for one of their occupied subjects—so we, the viewers, understand that Najada’s economic and political fortunes are unlikely to change. Which is why climbing is important. If Najada is going to have a win, it’s going to come from climbing. If Najada, a Bedouin, is going to break out of his demographic trap and get to know Palestine’s urban professionals or America’s most opinionated climbing writer, it’s through climbing. The sport has a literal and life-changing meaning for Najada—and that’s why we want him to succeed.
I could build out from here, citing how a similar tactic is deployed with other characters, other tropes, throughout the film—or I could veer away from the craft into the other characters that make “Resistance Climbing” so powerful. I could introduce you to Laith Alqatami, who lost access and water rights to the family’s ancestral farm when a Israeli settlement moved in, or Faris Abu Gosh, who was named after the child martyr Faris Odeh but who, to his mother’s disappointment, just wants to rock climb and salsa dance. But I think the film does a great job of speaking for itself.
Instead I want to say that, as a storyteller and a frequently disappointed consumer of climbing media, I doubted the film when it clichely asked me whether climbing had any meaning; and I doubted the film when it used a variety of familiar climbing film tropes to give us the structurally foreshadowed answer (“Yes”); but I was converted by its details, by its scenes, by the fact that it made me care about folks like Tawfiq Najada and his 5.12d. I’ve watched the film four times so far. I plan on sharing it with my wife and my parents and my sole Palestinian friend, none of whom are climbers. Unless I suddenly get strong enough to go try Traphouse, I’ll never watch Brooke Raboutou’s Mellow video ever again.
For all you content creators out there: there’s a lesson in that.
You can watch “Resistance Climbing” on Reel Rock’s website.