Just how bleak can a film about adding a new grade to bouldering be?
Everybody knows that Nalle sent a 9A/V17 – The Burden of Dreams. And, naturally, there is a film about it. The thing is, though, that this is not like other bouldering films. It is a grim doco about persistence through the emptiness of solitude.
It’s a movie about an individual’s frustration in which blips of progress illuminate a stuttering path through a quiet expanse of bad weather and backward steps. In the home footage of Nalle’s private obsession with a bit of rock in the middle of a dank forest, we see him seemingly powerless to change his situation. The subtitle gives it all away – ‘a documentary about not giving up’ – and we see that the only proactive step Nalle can take is to keep going despite all signs suggesting he should quit.
Grimness aside, The Lappnor Project makes for exquisite climbing porn. We see every hold naked, pawed, groped and slapped as the mellow voice of Nalle calmly reveals their intricacies. It doesn’t get much better for me than a gratuitous move-for-move comparison between the project and Nalle’s indoor simulator: an orgy of beta. Through each failure and close call we really understand the difficulty of the moves and, as the hungry audience, are invested in his success. Every short link becomes exhilarating. This is something we don’t get much in other climbing movies where often the climber has it so dialled that they make the V15 looks like a V0.
A long-term project is anathema to short attention spans and instant gratification. The process is about patience, letting things settle and build in your mind. Likewise, the film ramps up but then makes you wait. We must pause and reflect, in contrast to being bombarded by as much sick shit as can be hosed over the brain in HDR super-saturation. I’ll happily watch dulcet monotones in forest shadows over obnoxious yelling, drone flybys and a contrived dramatic narrative.
All the same, there are cameos from other pro climbers, a bit of Dave Graham banter, Jimmy Webb and a few seconds of Daniel Woods. But these characters don’t add comparison or competition, rather the boulder is ‘the platform for the game [Nalle is] playing’ against himself.
The film steers away from drama and hype. The grade of the project is not addressed directly, however, Nalle describes the difficulty for him simply through how many sessions it took him to do the individual moves and the project itself.
Thirty minutes of Nalle’s internal monologue yields gems of wisdom; one must be able to see when you have invested too heavily into a dead end and must adopt a new approach. This requires trust in the process and an assurance that can come across as arrogance. Nalle says, ‘I never considered the possibility of failing to climb this boulder’ and of course arrogance is necessary to trick yourself to push through the monotonous grind and keep the psych alive.
If emotions weigh you down, a northern Euro climber might seem better off without them. Amidst the solemnity of the project, there is still room for glimpses of humour and camaraderie. It is nice to see candid shots of a calm man losing his shit, Finnish swearing and warm banter with friends at the crag.
The audience is enticed further into the film with lures, links and hints of progress; essentially with hope. The energy of the movie builds, thumping bass and washing-machine dubstep shudder and suddenly disappear… as yet another season ends. The film’s journey is drawn out, not only temporally but also with the physical distance covered by Nalle circumnavigating the globe to repeat the pilgrimage to this rock. Whilst the pacing is slowed by the ebb of each climbing season, with each set of attempts the energy incrementally builds. Tragedy at failure and elation at progress, even so, the big links are tinged with an awareness that they are close but so far. We share the broken momentum of the climber and are thrust back into the grey void. Morsels of excitement are sandwiched by the beautifully shot bleakness; cut to crows passing the time in snowed-over fields and lavender-grey skies, a wide shot of a blizzard, a lone Finnish flag is faintly visible, shaking in the driving snow. The whistling of the wind echoes the haunting strings and deftly rung piano keys. A soundtrack of white noise and punctuated silence.
The film draws powerfully on place. Between climbing sessions we join Nalle in Helsinki, a city seemingly devoid of life, trapped eternally either in dusk or darkness. In between blizzards he runs the desolate streets or trains in an empty gym then returns to a dark apartment to watch TV alone and drink. A solitary piano key rings out. Indeed it feels like this is a documentary about not giving up on life despite Finland and in this way the process of persisting with A Burden of Dreams is akin to our own struggles with daily life, year after year, after year. Nalle might just as easily have been talking about life when he said, ‘break it down into little pieces and try to not look at the terrifying reality of what you are up against’.
The oft-quoted statistics of Finland’s prevalence of depression seem fitting given the snapshots of Helsinki life that are folded between climbing sessions – shots of Nalle alone at home, running alone, training on his simulator alone. It makes sense that in the end he climbs the thing alone at night, with just his camera to share in the celebration.
The Lappnor Project is refreshing in its novelty and creativity and I’m glad to see filmmakers taking the risk to deviate from the expected path. Cute creative tosh like recurring visual metaphors of chance adds a little variety. Nice shots show some love and attention to detail, like his growing pile of exhausted shoes from his sponsor and a timelapse of the boulder transitioning from autumn into winter’s blanket of snow. I questioned whether I would enjoy a montage of the climbing footage alone, but the impact of the multi-year project would be lost and with it a more significant message. This film shows more than just another ascent.
As much as it is a documentary about projecting boulder problems, it is about grinding away at something despite bleak odds. Perhaps we give up too easily, what further potential is untapped for lack of more sustained determination and hard work? The Lappnor Project is motivating, an inspiring reminder to never give up, even when the slog is far from exciting or glamorous. We must do the hard, grey yards. This is the angle on climbing displayed in the film that resonates with me strongest, it is not a race or competition, just as this film isn’t about the grade or being the first.
Get The Lappnor Project here.