How do you make environmentalism cool again? Remove Al Gore, remove doom and despair, and replace it with 2 millionaires, 3 misfits, and a story of incredible adventure. 180° South is about the founders of NorthFace and Patagonia. Two men who let their love of nature guide them, inspire them, and take them on a 10,000 mile trip to South America. While fueling their obsession for climbing, they eventually earned enough wealth to create the largest private nature preserve in the world.
“It all started in my forge in the 1960’s in Ventura California. It was a crew that was short, but we were making the world’s best climbing equipment at the time. None of us wanted to be businessmen, it was just something we needed to do to feed our climbing habit.” -Yvon Chouinard
Most people might gloss over this documentary, but they shouldn’t. 180° South is a ViewFinder favorite because it encompasses the power of good storytelling. The film opens with Yvon, founder of Patagonia Clothing, explaining the adventure he embarked on in his early twenties, “we bought a van, loaded it with gear and surfboards, and set off for a 10,000 mile trip to South America.”
Without fancy visuals (part of the film was shot on an old Bolex), this film captures that young dreamer that all of us have been at some point. That attitude where you think you can conquer the world, you can throw all limitations off a cliff, and simply do whatever you want to do.
The key word there is “think.” Because although taking a 10,000-mile trip with your friends sounds like a lot of fun, there are many, many struggles along the way. And that is where Jeff Johnson comes in. Jeff is the narrator of the film. He is a drifter who wants to re-create Yvon’s journey to Patagonia and decides to make a documentary out of it. Right when we thought this was going to be a boring film about 2 old guys reminiscing, it gets completely turned around.
Without any money, Jeff decides to take a small boat from San Diego to Chile. Unfortunately, halfway through the journey, the mast of the ship snaps off and falls into the ocean. They recover the broken mast, but must quickly find land or die at sea. They manage to limp the vessel to the closest piece of land, the Easter Islands.
Doc Tip #1 Don’t cut it, embrace it. The unexpected disaster in this film adds huge credibility to the story and what seems like a failure, actually becomes a highlight. When Jeff stumbles along his journey it raises the stakes of the entire film. It makes it feel less like a vacation and more like an adventure. Viewers don’t like feel-good stories, they like to see struggle and hardship, and only then do they want to see a happy ending. When shooting your doc work, be open to failures and think about how to incorporate them into the story you’re telling.
“If you compromise the process, you’re an asshole when you start and an asshole when you finish.” -Yvon
You’ll know if you’ll like this documentary by the first 12 minutes of the film. That’s because this film is largely front-stacked, meaning that the most exciting stuff happens in the first half of the film and then slowly trails downward. This is okay though. Front-stacking a film can be beneficial if it’s executed properly. The set-up of this film is so well crafted and provides so many teasers that we can’t help but stay along for the ride. The film uses its narration very well, providing us with small quotes to pull at our curiosity:
“If I don’t get on that boat I know exactly what I’m going home to, if I do my future is unwritten.” –Jeff Johnson
“The word adventure has gotten so overused, to me adventure is when everything goes wrong, that’s when the adventure starts.” -Yvon
“The best journeys answer questions that at the beginning you didn’t even think to ask.” –Jeff Johnson
These bits of narration foreshadow what we can expect from the rest of the documentary. We learn that the future is unwritten, everything goes wrong, and unknown questions will be answered. The narration’s main purpose is to provoke. It does so not by telling us this trip will be amazing, this trip is wonderful and splendid. It tells us things will happen outside the control of the characters, there is no script, and plans will go wrong. An important technique to take away when watching this documentary is how to narrate with purpose.
Purpose: finding reasons to care
Very often, films falter because they have no underlying purpose. Excellent examples of this mistake are some hollywood action and romantic-comedy films. Although they have jokes, guns, explosions, etc, they lack any real purpose and leave the viewers reluctantly saying, “Yeah, that was an okay movie.”
Doc Tip #2 Filmmaking should always be purpose driven. The purpose of your film should not be to entertain or create beauty; those things will hopefully come as a product of your film. The purpose of your film should be something bigger. You must create a reason for people to care about what they’re watching.
180° South balances entertainment and purpose very well. Opening with fun and adventure, the film slowly transitions into a more educational documentary. We increasingly learn about the environmental impact we are creating on the world. This is summarized excellently during the Easter Islands narration:
Jared Diamond, the author of Collapse, wrote about Easter Island and how it was nearly annihilated. As the population increased, people began grouping up into tribes and competing with each other. They became obsessed with building larger Mori sculptures than each other and cut down all the their forests to transport the Mori. This became such an obsession that they depleted the island’s resources and this led to cannibalism and tribal warfare. Soon the population of the island, which had been 30,000, was reduced down to 111 people. He says that we’re making all the same mistakes that all these other societies have made. Growth is inevitable but we need to think about our use of resources.
Ominous narration like this is what usually turns people off from environmental films, such as Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. But this is not the case with 180° South. The narrations on environmentalism are short, and are immediately followed by progress in the main character’s adventure. Thus keeping the film light and fun, while still giving it purpose.
“You don’t want to breathe the dirty air, you don’t want to hear because it’s annoying, you don’t want to see because it’s ugly. That’s why we don’t understand nature, love it, or take care of it. We don’t realize we depend on it psychologically and physically 100%” –Juan Pablo Orego
“Men do not learn much from the lessons of history, and that is the most important lesson of history.” –Alduous Huxley
“I’ve met a lot of people who ask me what books to read or what films to watch, that’s a good way to start, but there’s no substitute for just going there.” –Doug Tompson