A still from Skywalkers: A Love Story by Jeff Zimbalist, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Sundance Review – Skywalkers: A Love Story Depicts the Art of Dangerous Living with Pulse-Racing Glory

When it comes to experiencing cinema, one of the greatest honours that you can bestow upon a film is having an unexpected physical reaction to it. This might be an out place moment of laughter (the bank robbery gone wrong in Two Hands) or a burst of tears during a surprisingly tender moment in a comedy (Melissa McCarthy’s d&m session in Bridesmaids), or in the case of Jeff Zimbalist and co-director Maria Bukhonina’s Skywalkers: A Love Story, it might be the need to supress the sudden rush of vomit leaping out of your stomach as you sit on the edge of your seat, wiping back tears of joy during the climax of the film.

These conflicting physical reactions and emotions come as a natural result of spending time with rooftoppers, people who engage in the often-illegal extreme activity of climbing with no safety gear to the top of apartment buildings, skyscrapers, monuments, and crane structures, often broadcasting their exploits via social media. Death is a looming threat for the underground movement, with countless videos online of those capturing their demise on livestreams, but that doesn’t stop the movement from taking place. Social media pushes rooftoppers to their greatest limits, with many looking to outclass their fellow climbers with extreme shots and precarious stances at the pinnacle of a building, all in a bid to draw mass global reactions.

As Skywalkers opens, we meet Angela Nikolau, a Russian rooftopper who builds her own social media following by pushing the sport into the realm of art by leaning into her gymnastic roots with balletic poses on the top of buildings. From afar, she admires fellow Russian rooftopper Ivan Beerkusv, someone who also seeks to push the sport into new areas. Separately, they each have 100,000s of followers on Instagram and Twitter, which in turn brings the financial support of brands seeking out unique marketing opportunities. It’s those brand opportunities that brings them together as Ivan reaches into Angela’s DM’s with an offer to work together scaling a building in Asia.

The question of how love can emerge in the face of extreme events is explored over the intense 100-minute runtime, with both Angela and Ivan being pushed to their personal limits as they each work through their own understanding of what trust actually looks like. Before we get to the peak of Angela and Ivan’s relationship, Zimbalist and Bukhonina ensure that we’re given enough grounding to understand what draws them both to these dangerous heights.

For Ivan, his relationship with climbing is that of pure escapism. As a kid, he and his mates would resort to climbing to the rooftops of Russia to escape the tumultuous world of the adults below. While others saw that aerial world as a refuge to drink and let loose, Ivan saw it as a path to freedom, saying “The higher I went, the easier it was to breathe.”

For Angela, her parents’ history with the circus and the trust that they shared with one another in the acrobatic arena of the big top helped guide her love of risky antics. After her parents separated, Angela went to live with her grandmother, who early on talks about courting danger by handling snakes. Late in Skywalkers,Angela recites a circus quote which further highlights just why risk and danger are so alluring, “Our full potential is on the other side of fear.”

In watching Elizabeth Chair Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin’s Academy Award winning documentary Free Solo, viewers asked to reconcile with the enduring question of how Alex Honnold could put his partner and family through the tension of free climbing. That concern is stripped away with Skywalkers as Angela and Ivan realise their love for each other by providing support and encouragement during each climb. Angela and Ivan’s synergy is almost instantaneous, and as they build a career together, their social media interactions explode.

With each climb, they push further away from what being an atypical rooftopper is, leading Angela to conjure a new name for their version of roofing. When we see Angela holding onto a spire with one hand as she leans out into the air in a stunning dress, reaching out to skim the sky with her other hand, it becomes clear that her choice of word – ‘skywalkers’ – feels entirely appropriate for the artform the two have created.

In the conversations the two have with as they climb, it becomes clear that the journey to the peak is not about adrenaline seeking, but rather, finding the avenue for self-growth, and within that self-growth comes moments of instability and complexity as fractures in their relationship appear. The need for sponsorship money pushes Angela into a mindset where she becomes increasingly unable to focus on the climb, instead paying more attention to how they will get the shot they need to set social media afire once more. Ivan’s reaction is, understandably, one of frustration, with him pushing Angela to focus on their own safety first and getting the shot second.

You may have had some royal arguments with your partner, but have you ever had one as you stand at the top of a skyscraper with the wind threatening to blow you off the swaying structure as you hang on with just your fingertips? I’ll hazard a guess and say no.

Moments of relationship tension and tenderness somehow make the extreme art of skywalking feel familiar and relatable, an aspect of the film that’s amplified by the frequent first-person GoPro video shots that truly immerse you in the moment. An early travail sees Ivan crunching ice under his feet as he climbs along the arm of a crane as it hangs over an ominous fog. It was at this moment that I knew that my morning breakfast was in jeopardy of seeing the world once more, and this is before we find out that Angela and Ivan intend to recreate the Dirty Dancing lift at the top of the second-tallest building in the world, the Merdeka 118 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Days before the Merdeka climb, Angela encounters a Ukrainian circus which has fled to safety away from the Russian invasion. Angela’s mindset at this point is one of doubt and anxiety; she is desperate to climb the megatower, but she is questioning the level of trust that she can put in Ivan so keep her safe. As she watches the acrobatics of the circus performers, she thinks of her parents and how the loss of trust tore them apart. In a film full of moving moments, it’s here that Skywalkers truly reinforces the ‘love story’ part of Angela and Ivan’s narrative.  

As Skywalkers moves into its third act, the siren-song of their romance lingers as the soundtrack to what becomes a full-blown heist film as the two plot how they plan to breach the security and safely scale the megatall skyscraper. The risk is real as the threat of a lengthy prison sentence hangs over their heads if they’re caught, with the structure is secured with facial scanners, regular security patrols, and day-night construction workers. If they aren’t caught, then the chances of falling to their deaths at the peak of the spire sits in wait. Given the two provide narration we have a good idea going how their story ends, however, just like Free Solo, knowing their fates doesn’t make their climb any less nerve-wracking. Instead, if you’re like me and suffer from acrophobia, then you’ll be on the edge of your seat with your hands over your eyes for the last forty-five minutes of the film.

But gosh it’s worth it.

Skywalkers is a pulse-racing, emotionally enriching, utterly thrilling documentary event that deserves to be experienced on the largest screen possible, even if it will likely make you feel like vomiting. This level of performance art is one to be admired and celebrated, with their awe-inspiring photography and videos encouraging us all to take a different viewpoint of our increasingly industrial world. Skywalkers is truly phenomenal viewing.

Directors: Jeff Zimbalist, Maria Bulkhonina (co-director)

Featuring: Angela Nikolau, Ivan Beerkus

Writer: Jeff Zimbalist

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian cinema, Australian politics, Australian culture, and Australia in general. Found regularly talking online about Sweet Country, and reminding people to watch Young Adult.

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