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Review: ‘Sunshine Superman’ soars to great documentary heights (Includes first-hand account)

While extreme sports are regularly being taken to new levels, the actual practice of pushing the limits and testing boundaries has existed for several decades. And it generally starts with someone asking, “What else could we do?” Sunshine Superman chronicles the life of a man who asked that question in the ‘70s after regular skydiving became too humdrum.

Carl Boenish had two passions in life: parachuting and filmmaking. So even though he had a solid career as an engineer, he decided to turn his hobbies into a full-time job in his late 30’s. He generated some really stunning movies shot in midair with other skydivers, but after several hundred jumps he began to wonder what else his otherwise impractical skills could conquer. So in 1978, he and a group of fellow enthusiasts were the first to leap off Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan using ram-air parachutes. From there, they ascended antenna towers, skyscrapers and anything else deemed tall enough, launching an organization known as “B.A.S.E. Jumping,” which stood for building, antenna, span, and Earth (cliff). Carl and his equally keen wife Jean turned BASE jumping into a career, until his untimely death in 1984.

Thanks to Carl’s fondness of recording as much as possible, director Marah Strauch is able to interweave people’s accounts of events with actual images from the same experience. Not only that, he consistently shot from multiple angles to achieve his goal of illustrating what jumping was really like for the inexperienced; therefore, these sequences of archival footage are impressive documentaries in themselves. In fact, they make the act so tangible that the squeamish will squirm and the adventurous will itch for the real thing as they watch these people leap and soar in the air.

Decades later, the speakers still radiate a fervour as they talk about the period in which they and Carl pioneered the sport. Each is labelled with their name and membership number, indicating when they completed the four jumps required for admission to B.A.S.E. They recall evading the police when illegally trespassing on private property, the careful planning that went into each attempt (challenging the perception they’re just “crazy”), and the camaraderie and purpose they found in each other. It’s easy to get caught up in their excitement as they put words to their memories.

Since Carl spearheaded this movement, he was also it’s spokesperson in many ways. Therefore even though he was mostly behind the camera in much of his own footage, filmmakers are able to incorporate news interviews he did around various controversial or remarkable feats. Everyone involved understood there could be legal consequences for their actions, but considered the thrill worth the risk; Carl even had a lawyer friend who was at the ready if required.

It’s clear everyone involved in the project, including a Yosemite park ranger, has a great respect for Carl and his dedication to living on the edge. The mood noticeably darkens as the event leading to his death is approached and it raises questions that will never be answered; but filmmakers do an excellent job of reconstructing the occurrence from as many angles as are still available to provide as complete a perspective as possible.

Director: Marah Strauch

Written By

Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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