In trying times, wrought with fear of abandonment, of deceit, of betrayal, it feels like the riskiest move ever to trust others. The more narratives we hear reinforcing these fears, the less we give over to other people, open up to others, fully entrust our lives to others. But these leaps of faith are exactly what’s needed for us to unite across differences, to come together with our cultural and class counterparts.– Director Jeff Zimbalist
To make a film across six years and six continents, the project needs to be a pursuit of purpose or meaning. For director Jeff Zimbalist and co-director Maria Bukhonina, their documentary Skywalkers: A Love Story reaches beyond the dizzying heights of extreme and illegal climbing to attempt to climb into the very souls of its subjects: rooftoppers Angela Nikolau and Ivan Beerkus.
Combining her gymnastic skills with his technical prowess, Nikolau and Beerkus transformed the sport of rooftopping into an art known as “skywalking”. Photographing their acrobatic stunts atop the world’s tallest buildings – on skyscrapers’ edges of an abyss – they are authors of sublime viral imagery.
Nikolau describes herself and Beerkus as a modern-day version of a travelling circus. That’s an apt definition, but her choice of phrase is limiting. The duo is an evolution of the mountaineering tradition that conquered the great mountain ranges: Mount Everest, K2, Cho Oyu, and Kangchenjunga. Now, instead of scaling nature’s sublime heights, they turn to man-made structures, from Notre Dame Cathedral, 64 metres in height, to the last super-skyscraper, Kuala Lumpur’s 678.9-metre-high Merdeka 118. If these man-made structures cannot match nature’s sublime frontiers, Nikolau and Beerkus create their art in spaces not meant for humans – where the human gaze peers through to the celestial heavens of our mythical Gods.
“Limits only exist in our mind. This isn’t an adrenaline addiction,” Nikolau says, “It’s a commitment to self-growth. I want to develop as an artist.”
I recall speaking with Terence Davies about his biopic of the American poet Emily Dickinson. He said, “She obviously needed to express herself deeply in poetry like everyone else who works in any kind of art form. You want a response, you need a response, and if there is no response, or the response is indifferent, where do you find the courage to go on?”
While Nikolau and Beerkus’ skywalking has gone viral, their courage doesn’t solely derive from the response they receive from their viewers. Throughout Skywalkers, it’s clear that the adrenaline rush really does not fuel their illegal climbs, although it surely excites them. Their drive is grounded, if you will, in the desire for creative expression at extreme limits. Overcoming the logistical challenges of their climbs – including fundraising for their travels – and the elation of artistic expression achieved compels them to seek the next challenge.
Like cultures that believe a photograph can steal a part of a person’s soul, these moments captured on video and photos forever leave their imprint in places few may ever stand. Like mountaineers planting a flag, iNkolau and Beerkus’ documentation of their achievements leaves their unique signature. Unlike the mountaineers bringing a nationalistic claim to human endeavor, Nikolau and Beerkus’ artistic expression transcends their individual experience, creating indiscriminately resonating images.
“I was a passionate, amateur rooftopper in my youth before the activity had a name,” Zimblalist says in his director’s statement. “When I discovered others were doing creative trespassing missions around the world, I took off my balaclava, put on my journalist hat, and dove deep, tracking the growth of the phenomena for two decades, looking for a personal story in that world worthy of a film.”
Recognising the duo’s personal stories will hold the audience’s interest is the film’s strength. The love story and the couple planning their climbs like thieves preparing for a heist infuse the documentary with narrative energy. It’s easy, however, to exaggerate the film’s originality, forgetting how James Marsh’s 2008 documentary about extreme tightrope walker Philippe Petit, Man on Wire, also plays like a heist film.
Indeed, Skywalkers is personal rather than strikingly original, focusing on the vulnerability and ambitions of its subjects. Nikolau and Beerkus both come from broken or fractured families. Nikolau’s one rule is only to trust herself, while Beerkus enjoys rooftopping because the higher he goes, the easier it is, he says, “to breathe”. Both seek escape, rely on themselves, and control their destinies. Ironically, their collaboration, instigated by Beerkus’ sponsors, places them in the crosshairs of their vulnerabilities. Out of this complexity emerges a beautiful portrait of the ups and downs of two converging lives.
Nikolau and Beerkus’ willingness to bare themselves to the camera, exposing their vulnerabilities, doubts, and struggles, deserves our admiration. The adrenaline rushes viewers experience, and the episodes of suspense as it builds to its climax, hold our attention. However, by getting under the skin of its subjects, Zimblalist and Bukhonina explore what makes us tick. Skywalkers: A Love Story will endure because it’s not trapped in the moment of a daring acrobatic stunt; it’s rooted in the timeless human experience.
Against the backdrop of their most daring climb, Merdeka 118, Nikolau and Beerkus confront their vulnerabilities and put their trust to the extreme test – performing an acrobatic stunt atop the spire. Whether they succeed or fail, the heart of the film is how skywalking and their feelings for one another are a journey towards fulfilling the basic human needs of connection, hope, identity, meaning or purpose, and empowerment.
Nikolau is the more emotionally open of the two, and her commitment to self-growth and desire to develop as an artist is underpinned by painful memories and fears. Her parents performed together in the circus until her father abandoned her mother, who then sank into depression. “I refuse to return to Moscow and have a plain, boring life,” says Nikolau. “Mom was super talented and now is wasting away in some little village. Dad became just some sort of handler. No one will remember them when they are gone. When somebody is talked about, they live on. I want my work to live on after I’m gone.”
It’s tempting to view Nikolau as the dominant subject, but an analogy of the flying trapeze act, comprising the flyer and the catcher, offers an insight into the dynamic of her and Beerkus’ relationship. By being “the emotional one”, she elevates Skywalkers’ drama. She trusts him to be there to catch her, but his protective nature and her vulnerability are a source of drama. It’s a minor observation, but buried in the love story are captivating sub-plots of a single or series of trapeze acts and one woman’s attempt to escape her past.
Zimblalist is correct in emphasizing the theme of trust. Through the prism of his subjects, he explores the intimate relationship between vulnerability and trust. We can only trust when we’ve allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. There’s a moment when the two seem to become one figure, a visual metaphor similar to people falling in love. Zimblalist delicately handles this interaction to enter a subtle conversation of how vulnerability and trust are defined and how integral they are in the human experience. Skywalkers is nuanced in its observations and the ideas it presents, climbing carefully into the soul of a love story at dizzying heights.
Skywalkers: A Love Story screened in the US Documentary Competition category at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Following its premiere, it has been acquired for distribution by Netflix.