Saturday, August 4, 2012

6/12-  180 Degrees South

In preparation for our 6/14-6/29 study abroad trip to Chile, I watched a documentary called 180 degrees South by Jeff Johnson, a film about the life changing experience of going to and climbing Patagonia in Chile.  The older men in the movie were owners of the companies North Face and Patagonia that offer sports and outdoor gear.  Then the movie segued into the story of a younger man that was inspired by footage of the CEO’s and went himself.  It changed his life and he ended up staying in the area and learning how to farm.  He finds himself concerned and wanting to help so he fights for nature conservation in the area now that he has developed a personal relationship with it.  It's a very moving story about a young man finding his passion in life from an adventure.  This documentary is a reminder of the importance of the film medium to pass along perspectives and experiences to larger audiences that may be inspired as a result.  As a result of having watched this film, I am now more familiar with the "Patagonia Sin Represas" movement in Chile and other North Americans have tried to help.

Patagonia Sin Represas News

"The organization has launched a very strong Public relations campaign across Chile to fight the Endesa power company and others in the Chilean government that would destroy thousands of acres of the Baker and Rio Pascua river valleys in the Patagonia. This very misdirected attempt to solve Chile's power problems by building hydro electric dams and sending power all the way to Santiago has gained speed under President Bachelet's administration in Chile" (All Southern Chile, 2012).

180 Degrees South reminds me of the book, 3 Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson & David Oliver Relin about Greg Mortenson who finds his path in life by hiking to the top of the K2 peak in Pakistan.  He decides that the area would benefit from schools so puts all of his efforts into this endeavor and succeeds in a way nobody could have imagined.  Unfortunately, not everyone approved of the way he managed the Central Asia Institute- the foundation created to manage the building of the schools, and a book came out later called 3 Cups of Deceit by Jon Krakauer.  I have not yet had a chance to read this but look forward to it. I also found my passions in life from travel in that I wanted to work with international students and solidified that desire by teaching English in South Korea for 3 years.  Now I have an unquenchable thirst to be involved in international education and help students of all ages and backgrounds reach their goals.  As a result of my travels, I have also become interested and involved with creating visual art that raises awareness about nature conservation and other social issues.  

(IMDB, 2012)

Below is a copy of a film review that I recently wrote:

180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless

By Sasha Harrison

180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless (2010), is an adventure documentary about a surfer and climber, Jeff Johnson, who finds his life veering into the doldrums.  Directed by Chris Malloy, the film traces Jeff’s decision to spice things up as he turns “180 South” and heads from Ventura, California to Patagonia, Chile for some thrills.  Inspired by footage that was found of the 1968 expedition led by the Patagonia founder, Yvon Chouinard with legendary rock climber and co-founder of North Face and ESPRIT outdoor clothing companies, Doug Tompkins, Jeff decided to retrace their footsteps. Instead of traveling by land, hitching a ride with a sailor, he goes by sea from Mexico and sails south along the west coast of Chile.  Held up by a dangerous breaking of the sail mast, they have to stop at Easter Island where he shows home video footage of resting, fixing the boat, fishing, surfing, climbing, and a lady adventurer, Makohe, that decides to join them on their journey.  They finally make it to their destination and encounter further trials that schedule them to climb at a perilous time when the rock of Patagonia is loose because of melted snow.  While he and his team ultimately fail to summit the final 200 ft. of Cerro Corcovado (the Corcovado volcano), the journey revealed itself to be the ultimate lesson that raised awareness about conservation and the environment.  Their lives were permanently altered as these themes took over as a motivating locus of their future endeavors.

While the overall purpose of the movie hinted at exposing the virtues of adventure to a beautiful and rugged landscape and enhancing one’s relationship to nature, at times it came off as superficial.  Let me explain.  The beginning of the documentary showed original footage of the original 1968 journey with the youthful Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins on their way to Patagonia.  It was rugged, exciting, and had an old glam feel to it that got the viewer in a nostalgic kind of mood, looking forward to an epic and historical story.  Then, the director abruptly switches to modern footage, sometimes taken with a home video camera that jostled the screen to the point of feeling queasy, and other times with professional and smooth footage that allowed the stomach to settle.   The beginning of the movie foreshadowed a historic journey to a land that had rarely been touched by the North American man.  However, it was disappointing when it gave a modern portrayal of a simulated experience.  It felt less unique, less genuine, and less adventurous because it had already been done before.  The triteness of the mirrored “adventure” left me wanting a more genuine experience.

Another aspect that contributed to the perceived superficiality was the editing of the film.  I believe the jolty clips of conversation mixed with long panoramic scenes of natural splendors, was intended to create a “documentary” type realism for the audience.  However, instead of that gritty texture so often associated with this genre, the modern, and wannabe original adventure film came off as confused.  One moment the protagonist, Jeff, is pounding nails into the boat to fix the mast as they are stranded on Easter Island (not painfully so since he met a beautiful woman and surfed in the off hours while taking in spectacular sunsets).  Then the next moment, there is a serene scene of the Easter Island statues as the waves lap methodically in the background.  Was this a positive or negative experience?  In the end it culminates into a conclusion about the actual path that led to the insights of the adventure-but during the movie, it seemed as though the only goal was to reach the top of the volcano.  The film editing could have been friendlier to the weak stomach by standardizing the shots so that they weren’t so choppy and difficult to digest.
Although there were problems that myself and other reviewers of 180 Degrees South pointed out as well, the documentary did have some highly redeeming qualities.  The director may have made some errors in the haphazard way that the movie was edited and the manner in which important themes were tacked on as a last minute thought.  However, Chris Malloy did engage with each player in the movie in a meaningful manner.  For instance, when he interviewed Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins, he had them together for many parts of the film in what appeared to be an old workshop.  As a result, the audience was able to see how the two characters interacted with each other, as well as with the interviewer.  They are older now, 60’s and 70’s, and you can tell that they shared a lot of history together from the shared stories, memories and jokes.  This allowed the audience to imagine how those men must have sarcastically and argumentatively bantered their way down the South American continent in their Ford E-Series Econoline Van with surfboards and climbing equipment littering their vehicle.  We can see firsthand how their 1968 adventure must have proved so significant in their lives that it moved them to start their own companies that became ubiquitous and successful.  Initially broke and adventurous, these men inspired the wanderlust that moved Jeff to take a break from his dreary California job and pursue a lifelong dream.  In this way, the director achieved his goal of capturing the point of views and intricacies of the risk-taking individuals that were pivotal to the point of this story. 
Along with the directing, the impromptu script that appeared and dialogue that was captured was also interesting and revealed valuable insight into the character’s lives.  For instance, "These people have shown me that if you love a place, you have a duty to protect it. And to love a place, you have to know it first," (180 Degrees South: Conquerors of the Useless) says a character in the film towards the end.  These deep words almost came as an afterthought to the original theme of the film, yet they still lingered as an important takeaway when it was finished.  Regardless of the fact that the “life-lessons” exposed themselves in a serious manner as a tacked on extra to the film, they were still meaningful and thoughtful.  Perhaps they would have seemed more salient if they had been interwoven into the body of the documentary as a purposeful thread.  That being said, the dialogue of the film was mostly realistic, since there were many interviews and candid segments, and they fit well with the overall documentary theme. 
The plot was neither great nor horrific.  It wasn’t necessarily inventive or creative in a standout or particularly memorable way, but it wasn’t weak or boring either.  Yes, the words and dialogue seemed credible since Jeff was just a normal guy and an adventurer out in the wilderness trying to make his way down the coast.  What kind of credentials do you really need to be credible in this scenario?  Perhaps the fact that the CEO’s of a few very successful companies were interviewed added credibility to the overall movie and inspired folks to watch it, since people often like to view the inside life of wealthy individuals.  The main surprise of the movie was that Jeff and his crew failed to reach the top of the Corcovado volcano.  It was sad that he never reached his goal, yet the writers assuaged this wound by focusing instead on the positive outcomes of the trip such as an enlightened mind for environmental conservation and a new love of the Chilean land.
Considering that this was a documentary and not a Hollywood film full of special effects, the costumes and clothing, as well as set choices fit the movie.  The characters that were interviewed, Yvon and Doug, had the most flexibility in choosing their style for the movie in a way that truly represented who they were.  They chose casual attire that one would expect from an outdoorsy type individual.  This styling, along with their choice of interview location- the rustic woodshop- contributed to a realistic and climber/surfer ambiance of the film.  These were far from your suit and tie wearing businessmen and CEO oriented type people.  They were portrayed as relaxed and casual, a demeanor that fit well with the chosen set.  The backgrounds were believable and of course Mother Nature and all her majesty won the best scenery award.  Nobody can argue that the sunsets over the ocean, snowy peaks of the Patagonia region; cliffs of Easter Island and rivers of southern Chile as portrayed in this film were anything less than breathtaking.  These scenes were practically characters in and of themselves.  One couldn’t ask for better scenery for the cinematography.
Last but not least, the music was appropriate to the surfer and climber scene.  Clips of music by M. Ward, Andrew Bird and Modest Mouse were incorporated into the documentary in a way that gave it some appreciated character.  Popular music among this crowd, it illuminated the attitude and vibe often associated with coastal and mountainous sports milieus.  The edgy guitars along with the indie-emo riffs gave the film some credibility as a legitimate source for telling this story from a climber’s perspective.  Upbeat and serene at the same time, the music flowed well with the ever changing pace of the film and flow of the scenes.  Overall, it was a pleasant soundtrack. 
Though I would recommend this film to friends as an interesting and somewhat educational film, one thing that I wish the film had delved into a bit further was the political landscape of Chile.  I was forced to seek outside reading in the Insight Guides: Chile and Easter Island in order to fulfill my curiosity on these matters that innately affected the environmental and conservation issues that were faced in the documentary.  A background overview of these political issues could have offered a great deal of credibility to the film.  It could have displayed thorough research and added to the comprehension of the issues that a laymen watching the film may not consider, and could therefore draw faulty conclusions.  It is an injustice to skim over deeper rooted issues, though I suppose this could be seen as an introductory tool to instigate further analysis by those that care to get involved in the causes portrayed. 
On a closing note offered with a caveat, the 180 Degree South documentary was viewed from the eye of a student who would soon be traveling there for a study tour.  From this point of view, along with the background knowledge gained from reading the Insight Guides: Chile and Easter Island (2010) book, I was fascinated with the rugged beauty seen through the lens of a video camera and from the pictures from the guidebook.  However, I also understand that there are so many complications and issues that were never touched upon in either source.  Issues of educational history, policy and growth were lightly touched upon in the guidebook, yet further analysis of these issues are needed to understand the complexities of a unique culture through the eyes of an outsider.  If anyone is able to help offer assistance to another country, it is my belief that one must also help locally first.  In order to offer effective help, one must be aware of how issues are framed within other cultures, not just how they are contextualized within their own environments.  Chile has some geographic treasures that I agree should be preserved, but we must also consider how this conservation can be done in the best way for indigenous people.  If outsiders buy the land for preservation but then scare away investors and businesses from Chile, how is this helping their economy?  Do locals get to use the conserved land as their own?  Can we justify this type of aid if indigenous people are compromised?  At the end of the day, Chileans need to have the final say in how their country is handled by their own citizens, as well as how their land is used by those from the outside.


Frizzelle, C. (2010, May 7, 2010). 180 degrees south: Lindy, do I really have to review this movie? SLOG News and Arts, 1.
IMDb. (2012). 180 degrees south. Retrieved 7/1, 2012, from
Lawrence, R. (2010). In Lawrence R. (Ed.), Insight guide: Chile and easter island (5th ed.). London, England: APA Publications.
Wikipedia. (2012). 180 degrees south: Conquerors of the useless. Retrieved 7/5, 2012, from

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