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180° South

February 28, 2013

180° South (2010)
Director: Chris Malloy

180 Degrees South Banner.jpg (490×220)

Synopsis: Extreme-sports devotee and intrepid traveller, Jeff Johnson, sets off on an epic journey to Patagonia – following in the footsteps of a previously-documented 1968 expedition by cult travellers and environmentalists, Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins.

Review: This documentary about the expedition by Jeff Johnson and his fellow hikers, climbers and ‘surf dudes’ to Patagonia to scale the iconic Cerro Corcovado, begs that age-old Gandhi problematic about film subject matter; was Gandhi a great film, or just an average film about a great man? In the case of 180° South we are privy to an undoubtedly worthy story of a man taking the ‘road less travelled’ for an epic and highly attritional journey down from the US to Patagonia (taking in Easter Island on the way), where he develops a growing awareness and social conscience over crucial issues of development, conservation and corruption in South America.

Ultimately, I think the documentary is a bit of a mixed bag. The two 1968 travellers – Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins – who inspired Johnson’s journey, are by far the most interesting voices and personalities in the film. Since their 1968 odyssey, Tompkins and his wife have devoted their lives to buying and conserving huge swathes of Patagonia, protecting the land from the nefarious interests of governments and international corporations, and Chouinard – though not as ‘active’ as Tompkins – is still a fascinating, wry and life-affirming presence. Alas, the younger travellers – led by Johnson – who occupy most of the film’s running-time don’t have anything like the same eloquence or intellect, and in a sense, their engagement in eco-activism is almost an accidental by-product of their more overarching interest in being extreme sport enthusiasts.

Also, the production values for a supposed DIY traveller’s tale are suspiciously glossy in this documentary. Some of the landscapes encountered and epic surfs ridden by Johnson and his crew seem overly-glutinous, and it’s a shame no one ever breaks the ‘fourth wall’ to acknowledge this additional, industrial element to the journey. Still, the growing social engagement and education of Johnson through the course of the film seems a genuine enough development, and any documentary that endeavours to shed a light on noble South American eco-social issues such as the destroying of local fisheries, the pollution of many rivers and seas, and the endangerment of whole reams of beautifully preserved wilderness, deserves extreme credit. (February 2013)

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