Documentary Review: ‘Chasing Niagara’

Review by Justin Goodman

They sent a cat over the Niagra Falls in an oak and iron barrell. Anna Edson Taylor, a 63 year-old widow, followed after in what is remembered as the first survivor (excluding, of course, the cat) of a ride down the Falls. Since then this has been followed by 15 attempts of various styles, a third of which were fatal, including the 28 year-old Jesse Sharp who propelled himself over the falls in a kayak 89 years later, in 1990, for thrill and fame. Ironically, his body was never found. This is the half-stated background of the Chasing Niagara, a reality show dressed as a documentary, following 3 years in the life of an adventurous kayaker as he builds up the momentum to reproduce–minus the dying–Jesse Sharp’s feat. But like a nervous baseballer, the film’s grip is too tight, and the strength of its lush visuals and high-flung language erodes in its continuous stream, thrilling in a way devoid of the content that it worked so hard to create from its beginning.

First, tragedy: One of Rafa’s friends and teammates for this project ends up stuck underwater for 3 minutes when his kayak, after going down a small waterfall, struggles to keep upright. When the team of six find him and drag him to land, he’s dead, one teammate pumping his chest and another looking at the rescue copter that shows up shortly after. His body is placed in the helicopter and the one who watched it now reaches down to pick up the helmet from which we’d been watching the whole affair GoPro-style. A somber version of Hardcore Henry, if you will. There’s a remarkable tension in a tragedy that had been preceded by a monologue (by Ortiz) about the perilousness of kayaking and its metaphoric value as a symbol of uncertainty and man’s inability to control nature. “A realm where humans don’t belong,” he calls it. This authentic tension of this moment vanishes when, instead of letting us wander into the story authentically confused, we rewind to the beginning of the entire story. It’s hard to not see the fatal irony in framing the story as one about the inability to change course, yet to reverse the flood of time itself.

Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong with this technique, nor anything wrong with its use here. The story it begins, however–a young man talking about how he met his crew of kayakers, how he became who he was (referring to his family and life growing up in Mexico), building up to diving down Niagra Falls, and his eventual decision regarding it–all ache with nostalgia for 90s MTV, including Ortiz’s explanatory voiceover as each one rides down a fall of some kind. Besides the very personal death in the opening, it’s an unsettling juxtaposition of bland exposition that is earnestly copacetic. Which would be forgivable were we to learn anything about the sport of kayaking that would offset the seemingly disposable nature of drama. Kayaking, though, is the side-lady of the documentary; at most, it features vague statements about one of his teammates being “the best kayaker in the world” and an infographic showing that the highest kayak dive was from the 189ft Palouse Falls. As a documentary titled Chasing Niagara, it’s perhaps too much to look for this underlying information or dramatic tension. But, then, it could just as well have been half an hour.

If your film’s content is equivalent to the body count of Niagara Falls daredevils (⅓), then I reserve the right to say it could have been shorter. A majority of the experience of Chasing Niagara is just this, a kind of chasing, the camera fanboying over “exciting” practice dives to prepare for the Falls. Probably the most exciting thing about all of this is the improvements to your playlist, as the soundtrack is Into The Wild level (Side note: you come to care about these kayakers as much as you do about Chris McCandless. Strongly in one way or another). What nature evokes through all this is passivity and static, background noise to people in one-man boats, never living up to the high-toned drama it purposely invites from the beginning. At times the scenery becomes aggressively generic with shots of eagles propelling themselves from treetops in a gesture towards human freedom (I guess, for it becomes hard to track meaning in such a film). It’s at this point that you realize you’d rather buy the soundtrack, or play the film while doing anything less blandly commercial.

Anna Edson Taylor would later say of her experience that she would “sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than take another trip over the Fall.” I won’t go so far as to say I’d prefer that to watching Chasing Niagara. Yet there’s little to take from it, even on the level of pure entertainment. Those who love it might compliment its visual appeal, but the most beautiful temple is simply a pile of stone without interiority. There are only gestures towards interior largesse here. Maybe to those who actively follow the life-stories of big names (think Kanye/Swift, or Amanda Palmer) it could hold a similar value. Still, I doubt it. Without a hint of real drama or danger, without the suggestion that “human beings don’t belong” in nature, all that’s left is the hollowness that threw Jesse Sharp over the Niagra Falls or Chris McCandless into the Alaskan woods, towards the mouth of nature’s cannon.

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