When Jimmy Chin and E. Chai Vasarhelyi set out to make “Free Solo,” they had intention.
They would make a climbing film that wasn’t about climbing. They would literally, and figuratively, defy heights and boundaries — capturing one man’s dream to conquer the vast granite wall of El Capitan unaided, a feat never accomplished before.
“We really wanted to make a great vérité film. We wanted it to play like a narrative,” Chin said during a recent telephone interview. “We wanted it to have emotional depth and just push the form as much as we possibly could, in every way that we could think of.”
They would break the barriers of documentary, transforming the genre and reinventing it — as the Hamptons Take 2 Documentary Film Festival has done itself.
Except now, it’s the Hamptons Doc Fest.
“We’ve had 10 years as Take 2, and we thought, ‘Well, what better way to start the next decade than with really claiming the documentary genre — and to be short, succinct, more modern.’ So we bit the bullet,” Executive Director Jacqui Lofaro said of the rebranding from festival headquarters in Sag Harbor. “Our audiences keep growing and that makes us happy. It’s the only place people can really see an intense concentration of docs in one place. People don’t have to be wandering all over the East End to see films.”
From Thursday to Monday, upwards of 2,000 documentary nuts and novices will flock to Bay Street Theater for five straight days of programming. Nearly two dozen features and a collection of shorts will play on the Sag Harbor screen, opening with “Every Act of Life,” paying tribute to Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally, who wrote groundbreaking plays and musicals with LGBTQ themes.
McNally will attend the festival for a talkback with actor Harris Yulin, according to Lofaro, as will director Sam Pollard, who will accept the Filmmakers’ Choice Award for “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me,” screening Saturday, December 1.
“I think it’s a wonderful honor to be asked to have my film shown at the Hamptons,” Pollard said during a telephone interview. “The filmmaker honor thing, you know, it’s cool. But never let this stuff go to your head.”
The Academy Award-nominated filmmaker chuckled modestly. “Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me” was an unexpected passion project, he explained, one he was originally hired to edit and ultimately directed. One that allowed him to re-examine a childhood hero he had cast aside, he said, as did so many Americans.
“I grew up as a young man in Spanish Harlem in the ’50s and the ’60s, and I was a huge fan of Sammy Davis at that time,” Pollard said. “I had seen him perform on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ on ‘Hollywood Palace.’ I had seen him in the Rat Pack films. I had even read his autobiography
“But then, by the ’70s as I became a young man — and after he was hugging Nixon and not so much in the limelight — I wasn’t as much of a fan of his,” he continued. “I didn’t pay as much attention. This film gave me an opportunity to revisit my old feelings about Sammy Davis.”
After combing though more than 200 hours of archival materials, conducting interviews and re-reading the aforementioned autobiography — and a stack of additional biographies — Pollard came away from the film with a new understanding of Davis. Like countless entertainers, the multi-talented performer was “wonderful and complicated,” he said, selfish and attention hungry with reservations and trepidations around failure.
But most notably, he was accused of catering to a white audience, Pollard said, leaving him shunned by the black community.
“I didn’t shy away from it. You can’t shy away from it,” he said. “It was public news and something he struggled with. It’s a very interesting thing about a community. They want him to succeed, but when he succeeded, they felt he forgot where he came from. So he was gonna catch hell from the community through the black press. He’s hobnobbing with white celebrities. He’s sleeping around and hanging around white women. The black community, on one hand, loved that he was a success, but on the other hand saying, ‘But did you forget where you came from?’”
As an adult, Davis realized the impact he once had was obsolete. It was a wakeup call, Pollard said, both physically and mentally, as he struggled with fading fame and personal demons
“Some people, as human beings, try to stay away from this notion of letting people see how conflicted they are and how troubled they are and how disconnected they might be,” he said. “Not Sammy Davis Jr. He wore everything on his sleeve.”
While Davis was an icon who transformed the entertainment industry in terms of race and art, Lofaro said, free soloist Alex Honnold — along with husband-and-wife team Chin and Vasarhelyi — have elevated the landscape of sport, she said.
“You can’t close your eyes to ‘Free Solo,’” she said of the closing night film. “It’s a documentary that’s getting a lot of buzz. Alex Honnold, this is a young guy who, in a way, you think he’s almost not human because he climbs without any protection. He climbs free. No carabiners, no ropes, no nothing. One slip and it’s not a mistake, it’s death. He has transformed the sport of high-wall climbing.”
A decade ago, Chin met Honnold before an international expedition to Borneo — the climber’s first. He had seemingly come out of nowhere, a free soloist who had just ticked Half Dome and Moonlight Buttress off his list — two climbs in Yosemite and Zion National Parks, respectively, that seemed futuristic at the time, Chin said.
In fact, they would seem futuristic if he did them yesterday, he added.
“It was so outrageous. They were so beyond what anybody was talking about that I was kind of floored,” he said. “But when I met Alex, I wasn’t really surprised. The climbing community has a lot of characters and, for a long time, it’s been a fringe activity and you meet a lot of interesting people.”
Immediately, Honnold came across as awkward, shy and young, Chin said, and packed 10 books for the expedition — including the 824-page tome “The Brothers Karamazov.”
“I said to him, ‘You will never get through those books. And if you do get through those books, that means we’re probably going to be sitting in a tent the entire time,’” Chin said. “But we weren’t, and we climbed this huge new route on a big wall there, and he not only read through all the books, he was borrowing books by the end of the trip.”
The filmmaker knew he was different and special — “He would say things sometimes that would catch you really off guard because there’s no filter from what happens in his mind and what comes out of his mouth,” he laughed — and as their friendship blossomed over the next 10 years, so did the idea for a film.
In 2016, Chin and Vasarhelyi approached the climber with the project, and he came back to them with his lifelong dream: to free solo the face of the world’s most famous rock, the 3,200-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.
It would be perfection or death — and, at first, the filmmakers stepped back.
“I just wasn’t sure I wanted to take that on,” Chin said. “We had to ask ourselves some really tough questions, mainly if we really trusted Alex to make the right decisions and be very thoughtful about his approach to free soloing El Cap.”
They decided they did and, with a crew of professional climbers, began filming in Spring 2016. Their journey together would last a full year — capturing an intimate, unflinching portrait of Honnold as he attempted one of the greatest athletic feats of any kind.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about why people have been connecting with this film,” Chin said. “I think it’s because we live in a time where it’s not clear what people’s intentions are, and everything seems to be clouded. And it’s nice to see purity of intention.
“Alex is such a pure person. He has this purity of intent,” he continued. “He thinks about absolutely everything that he does. And it’s also a time when people claim stuff; you can never tell what’s real and not real. And here’s Alex with this very clear intention. He free solos El Capitan — it’s a real person doing something real. And he isn’t in it for the money and he isn’t in it for the fame. He has this really pure intention, and I think that’s really inspiring.”
The 11th annual Hamptons Doc Fest will screen films from Thursday, November 29, through Monday, December 3, at Bay Street Theater, located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. For a full schedule, visit hamptonsdocfest.com.