The Directors Of ‘Free Solo’ Craft A Heartfelt Tribute To The Conservationists Behind Patagonia, The North Face & Esprit [SXSW]

Mar 15, 2023

Married in 2013, while Oscar-winning filmmakers Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin both had been making and shooting films before they met (Chin, “Reel Rock 7,” Vasarhelyi, “Youssou Ndour: I Bring What I Love“), the power of their collaborative work was instantaneous. 2015’s breathtaking high stakes “Meru” was one of the most harrowing mountain climbing docs ever made up until that point, and they managed to somehow even one-up it with their Oscar-winning doc, the vertiginous and death-defying “Free Solo.”
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Since then, the duo has turned their love for the outdoors, the environment and landscape, and their innate curiosity about the natural world into some riveting documentaries, many of them fueled by the same ticking-clock adrenaline of “Meru” and “Free Solo” (see 2021’s Thai Cave rescue doc, “The Rescue”).
Their latest doc, “Wild Life,” takes a detour away from the epinephrine-pumping style of their anxiety-inducing narratives mainly because the focus doesn’t call for it. Rendered in a softer, quieter mien, more fitting to their subject matter, “Wild Life” centers on the life of Kris Tompkins and Douglas Tompkins, a married couple who dedicated their lives to conservationism, protecting wildlife, and establishing many world-renowned national parks throughout Chile and Argentina.
Part love story, part tribute to their benevolent worldview and philanthropic efforts, and part inspiring changemakers doc, “Wild Life” tracks the life of the Tompkins through the good, the bad, and the challenges. Doug Tompkins was an outdoorsman and an entrepreneur who helped pioneer outdoor brands Patagonia, The North Face, and Esprit. A hands-on CEO with control issues, he soon grew restless with his companies and wanted to do more for the environment that Patagonia and The North Face clothing, gear, and paraphernalia were so clearly influenced and geared towards.
Tompkins eventually wooed Kris Tompkins, and it was a risk and leap of faith. She herself quickly admitted that she blew up her life and her engagement to her fiancé to be with Doug—and it scandalized her life and family. But something told her this daring impropriety was worth the notoriety it caused in her circles. It was in the end, and the Tompkins’ eventually abandoned the world of the massively successful outdoor brands they’d helped pioneer in favor of creating national parks in South America through their Tompkins Conservation nonprofit organization.
“Wild Life” chronicles their journey to affect the largest private land donation in history, and all the highs and lows that came with it, including Doug’s sudden and accidental death in an adventuring misfortune. Initially, they are seen as white savior interlopers and rich and powerful colonizers looking to buy up land in foreign territories—and rightly so, given the nature of history. The Chilean press and government are especially hard on them, demonizing them and even engendering death threats among the negative press. Eventually, as the decades continue, however, their goodwill efforts win over the people, their trust is earned, and the initially skeptical country finally understands their dreams of environmentalism, altruism, and doing some good in the world with their enormous wealth.
If there’s a downside to “Wild Life,” it’s that the late Douglas Tompkins was Chin’s mentor, so rather than a hard-hitting look into their lives, the doc, full of respect and admiration for the pair, is more of an affectionate tribute that feels the weight of responsibility. That’s not a bad thing, per se; what the Tompkins did, their generous and charitable philanthropist work is deeply commendable, and their legacy could inspire future generations to come. They and their humanitarian actions and ideals should be feted. And it’s undoubtedly a personal film in that regard; the only problem is that tribute docs largely lacking in conflict or interrogation have a low ceiling for just how compelling they can be.
And to be fair, there are some great conflicts and tragedies in the doc that feel insurmountable to the story. For Kris to persevere after Douglas dies in a kayaking accident in Chile, her world crumbles, and it’s unclear if she can go on without him, even just beyond the mission of conservationism. Struck with grief, she eventually summons the courage and fortitude to endure and even take their mission to the next level.
Certainly, one element that really ups the emotional qualities of the film, which shouldn’t be underestimated, is the excellent soaring and soulful score of Gustavo Santaolalla, known for “The Last Of Us” game and show and the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Juan Luqui. While this music might be familiar and even synonymous with Latin American-set narratives, the poignant music really sells many of the moving personal calamities, hardships, and struggles that the pair, and eventually Kris on her own, face.
If “Wild Life” is an affair of the heart about two people and their venerable conservationist efforts, it’s also a love story about the terrain, the land, and the dedication and commitment to preserving it. The film also features Yvon Chouinard, the rock climber, environmentalist, philanthropist, outdoor industry businessman, and so-called “existential dirtbag” and best friend of Doug Thompkins. A billionaire named one of the wealthiest men on the planet by Forbes, he not only founded the Patagonia company but eventually, inspired by the Thompkins’ determination, he gave away the entire company in 2022— valued at about $3 billion—to fight the climate change crisis. Throughout its trials and tribulations, “Wild Life” softly asks the question: what kind of life do you want to live? What kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? And these kinds of inspired actions certainly move the heart and soul and prove that the best of humanity has their heart in the right place at the very least. [B]
“Wild Life” screened at SXSW Film & TV festival this week, hits select theaters on April 14 and is available to stream on the National Geographic Channel on May 25 and Disney+ on May 26th, 2023.
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