Skywalkers: A Love Story, which premieres at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in the U.S. Documentary Competition, tells the incredible true story of a Russian couple- Angela and Vanya, two daredevil protagonists who take on the mission to climb the world’s last super skyscraper and perform a bold acrobatic stunt. Filmed over six years across six countries, the documentary uses extreme climbing as a metaphor for sustaining their relationship at the core. (Also read: Against the Tide review: Men at crossroads in Mumbai’s Koli fishing community)
In an exclusive interview with Hindustan Times, director Jeff Zimbalist and co-director Maria Bukhonina talked about shooting the film for six years and across six countries- in what they termed as a ‘risky passion project’ and ‘labour of love’. Excerpts.
Talk to me a little bit about the starting point for you on this project and what inspired you to tell the story of Angela and Vanya?
Jeff: I was an amateur rooftopper when I was a teenager, and into my 20s, and I found a lot of meaning in exploring underground tunnels and rooftops of cities… in escaping the conventional arms of society and finding these unknown, mysterious spaces that I could define for myself. When I learned that others were doing the same activity all over the world and taking it to the extremes, trespassing into the highest buildings of the world… and doing acrobatic stunts. I became sort of obsessed and tracked the rise of this phenomenon looking for stories that resonated with the experience that I had.
About 15 years later, I came across Vanya and Angela, and the fact that they were lovers and that they were climbing together immediately struck a chord with me. Here’s a potential feature-length film where you can use extreme climbing as a metaphor for romantic trust. I reached out to them and we did a little bit of filming together to go out and raise money. My friends at XYZ films and Library Films took a leap of faith to believe in this risky passion project. We got in Maria (Bukhonina), who essentially moved to go live and travel with the skywalkers, and over the course of roughly seven years, we shot our cinéma vérité feature documentary that followed a rollercoaster ride of events that we never could have imagined. Between a pandemic and a war breaking out and an unbelievable climax we did not see coming. The film gave us so much to work with, and we are thrilled to present it for the first time at the Sundance Film Festival.
Shooting for six years and across six countries- that sounds so rigorous! Tell me a little bit about that time period and the practicalities of filming.
Maria: We had to adhere to a rigorous safety protocol because obviously what the guys are doing is pretty high risk. We had to talk to them and their families to make sure that they are onboard with us filming them and we needed to be careful that we don’t interfere with anything that they do in extreme heights. We had to find our groove as to where we can film them vs where they would be filming themselves… Filming over six years and six countries, we had to remain really nimble with a very small crew. We had to travel where they travelled, we had to go where they went. We had to remain undetected and not run in a huge crew in the streets with cameras and equipment like that. We had to be like a small footprint so that we could remain filming with them 24*7 and kind of be in a very intimate space together. It’s a big labour of love and it took a lot of international travel and logistics. So we are very lucky that it has resulted into a film that is going to be very impressive for people, considering that this is a true follow doc.
Documentaries tend to be pointed towards characters and how their stories exist in the world. While making the project, were you ever concerned that it was heading towards a particular direction? Were there any moments that surprised you?
Jeff: We hoped that the relationship dynamic between our two protagonists would be universal. That they would confront universal obstacles, and that they would find solutions worldwide audiences found accessible and could relate to. That people have either contemplated or tried in their own relationships. One of my fears early on was that the way their relationship would be portrayed would be too nuanced, too esoteric, or too low stakes. The fact that during the course of the time when we were filming, so many big events happened and really confronted them with these massive hurdles that they had to overcome together or separately. That allowed for the story to become more accessible and find bigger scope. So, I was relieved that there was something where people from any country or any walk of life can relate to.
I would also say that we went into this project aware that our subjects were social media phenomena. That’s not a space that is accessible to everybody. We set about finding ways to work with them and where they could learn more about the long feature length documentary format. We were pleasantly surprised that they were able to quickly pick up some of the newer approaches to the process of making a different kind of art, in telling a different kind of story to the point where they became phenomenal cinematographers themselves! Really willing to put their intimate and vulnerable moments with each other and alone and on camera, so that we had this incredible access to them throughout the years.
I am also eager to know whether the protagonists have seen the film yet and what was their reaction?
Jeff: Yeah! (smiles) It was very important to us that they were approving of the project all along. There are things in there that will affect their lives forever- for example, their take on the war. This was a moral obligation of ours that we would be transparent with them, and we involved them in some of the bigger decisions in the project. Like the choice to make their interviews in English, as opposed to in Russian, and that was something that they really liked to reach a wider audience.
When they watched the film we were so relieved that they almost had no notes! I think one note was where there was a fleeting soccer scene and we showed someone else scoring a goal and his one note was, ‘Hold on! We scored so many goals during that match! How come you didn’t include my goals?’ (smiles) We were like, ‘You know what, we usually don’t let our subjects dictate the way an edit goes but in this case we will put your goal in there!’ So, it was really a massive moment for us in the process that they not only supported the cut that we showed them but that they were so willing to get behind the portrayal of their journey, even when it doesn’t always make them out to be beautiful and glamourous.
Huge congratulations on Sundance! What are you most looking forward to at the festival?
Maria: I think the most exciting thing for us is to be able to watch the film with the audience and to see their reactions live as they see things unravel on screen. That’s my number one spot of looking forward to at the festival. Of course, in any festival you want to network, you want to meet other filmmakers, you want to go to panels and learn from the masters in the field. But I think the first aspect is to watch how people are watching your film. (smiles)
Santanu Das is covering the Sundance Film Festival 2024 as part of the accredited press.