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Free Solo, live beyond fear. Climber Alex Honnold’s story wins the Oscar for best documentary feature

Alex Honnold is the first person to have climbed El Capitan, in California, without a rope. Free Solo, which won Best documentary feature at the 2019 Oscars, tells the story of his historic achievement.

In collaboration with Mara Budgen

“This film is for everyone who believes in the impossible”. During the night of the 2019 Academy Awards 2019, Free Solo has won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, and that’s how the victory has been commented by director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi who has accepted the prize with her companion and co-director Jimmy Chin. The documentary film Free Solo, produced by The National Geographic, tells American climber Alex Honnold’s solo and ropeless climb that went down on history in 2017.

It tells an unprecedented endeavor and a life-long dream: climbing the world’s most iconic granite wall, El Capitan, without any ropes, harnesses or protections – free soloing. El Capitan, a granite monolith of 1,307 metres in Yosemite National Park, California, represents a challenge for every climber. Its iconic wall is more than 900 metres high and the line chosen by Honnold is the Freerider (7c/5.12d). It’s a physical and psychological challenge in which every move, even the tiniest, and every hesitation makes a difference between life and death when it comes to climbing with nothing but shoes and a chalk bag.

This climb is really about the process of moving through fear.Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi

Who is Alex Honnold, the climber of Free Solo

Alex Honnold is the world’s best athlete in the discipline of free solo climbing. Known in the world of climbers for over a decade, he’s now become popular to the general public thanks to the documentary film. Born in Sacramento, California, in 1985, he became famous in 2008 after free soloing the Moonlight Buttress line in Utah’s Zion National Park, United States, and climbing the north-eastern wall of Half Dome, a granite rock in Yosemite National Park, California. Wild and vast natural landscapes are the scenery of Honnold’s superhuman adventures and challenges that led him to live in a van, travel the world and stop each and every year in Yosemite, an international Mecca for climbing and home to El Capitan.

free solo alex honnold best documentary oscar national geographic
Alex Honnold is the first person in the world to climb El Capitan, California, without ropes. Free Solo, which won an Oscar for Best documentary feature, tells his story © Free Solo/National Geographic

Talented and professional climbers like him don’t do just sports; they embrace a lifestyle. For Honnold, free soloing means climbing flawlessly. A mistake would mean a fall, which would probably lead to death. This is why preparation must be complete and involve every aspect of the mind, body and daily choices, as he told in a TED Talk after conquering his biggest peak – “El Cap”. Honnold isn’t just an athlete; he’s a multifaceted character, dedicated to different issues. He told his story in a book, established a foundation that promotes solar energy to improve people’s life in developing countries, and as a public figure he took stances on issues like politics – for example encouraging US citizens to vote in the midterm elections – and nutrition, as he promotes a vegetarian diet.

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Free Solo is the Best documentary feature at the Oscars, on 24 February 2019. On the stage of the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, United States (from left to right): producer Evan Hayes, directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, producer Shannon Dill, climber Alex Honnold and his girlfriend Sanni McCandless © Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Free Solo, the Best documentary feature at the Academy Awards 2019

Free Solo is a documentary film that presents an intimate portrait of climber Alex Honnold and a personal narrative on his preparation – both physical and psychological – to achieve his biggest dream.

I’ve thought about El Cap for years, and every year I was like ‘That’s really scary’.Alex Honnold

Preparation is indeed a substantial part of the movie, partly because it was a way to not impacting on Honnold’s climb while filming, as explained by co-director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. So, we dive into all steps of the climber’s personal quest: his determination, the passion for climbing, his defeats (an injury to his back and to his ankle) as well as his personal relations – with his friends and best climbing companions, and his girlfriend Sanni McCandless. The film accompanies us from his childhood to his van, from the climbs in Morocco to his coming back home, to his first attempt to free solo El Cap in November 2016, which he failed.

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Alex Honnold with his girlfriend Sanni McCandless. A scene from the documentary film Free Solo, which is the Best documentary feature at the Oscars 2019 © Free Solo/National Geographic

Then, on 3 June 2017, the epic climb. Alex Honnold became the first to free solo climb El Cap, in less than four hours: he left on 5:30 a.m. and climbed up to reach the summit just before 9:30. The climb has been documented with unique images – the “behind the scenes” at the basis of the wall, the wide overviews of Yosemite, and the close-ups on Honnold’s hands and foot moving on the smooth rock of El Cap.

I climbed El Cap with smooth precision and enjoyed the sounds of the birds floating around the cliff. And all felt like celebration.Alex Honnold

The scenes have been shooted by Jimmy Chin, director, photograper and climber, as well as a great friend to Honnold. “We had to carry the weight of the entire production being perfect because if we made any mistakes it could have been catastrophic, so there was a lot of pressure at that moment,” Chin said in a press conference at the Academy Awards. “Hanging off the wall, I couldn’t see Alex below and I just had to trust that he was being perfect”.

 

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Produced by The National Geographic, Free Solo has been directed by documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and director and photographer Jimmy Chin, with producers Evan Hayes e Shannon Dill. It won an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the Academy Awards 2019, defeating the other nominees – Hale County this morning, this evening; Minding the gap; Of fathers and sons, and RBG. Also, it won the People’s Choice Award: Documentaries at the Toronto International Film Festival. Free Solo traces a thin line that makes us hang in the balance between bravery and internal struggles, physical and mental strength, dreams and determination. And, maybe, it encourages us to push ourselves beyond our fears.

“Thank you Alex Honnold for giving us courage and teaching us how to believe in the impossible and inspiring us.Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
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