The beginning of 180° South is deceptive. Conversations of high adventure spliced between footage of rock climbing, surfing and mountaineering may easily trick the viewer into thinking this is a film about extreme sports. The main clue that hints at a different purpose is the chill sound track that is closer to Jack Johnson than Linkin Park.
The unassuming center of attention of this travel documentary, Jeff Johnson, is no Nike-sponsored athlete or X-Games champion. He is a working man who lives for adventure. “The real thing—total dirt bag,” is how Yvon Chouinard describes him.
Picture Doug Batchelor in his cave, but in Yosemite Valley at the base of El Capitan.
Jeff sets out from Mexico on a sailboat to retrace the general path down the Pacific coastline that Yvon Chouinard and Doug Tompkins drove in 1968. Their goal some forty years ago was to surf, climb and ski as much as possible before arriving in Chilean Patagonia, where they hoped to put up a new route on Mount Fitz Roy. Yvon would later start an outdoor clothing company and name it after Patagonia.
Now Jeff wants to sail to Patagonia and climb a less well-known peak that has been on his mind for over a decade, Cerro Corcovado. To help him live the dream, Jeff invites two friends—surfer Keith Malloy and climber Timmy O’neill, both of whom just happen to be Patagonia brand athlete ambassadors. The fact that the talent of these two athletes (as well as O’neill’s outrageous sense of humor) goes mostly undocumented is further evidence that this is not primarily a sports film. What is it really about? We’ll get back to that shortly.
One of my favorite threads of the movie is the conversation between long-time friends, Yvon and Doug. They reminisce about their 1968 road trip and banter about climbing styles and lifestyles. Even though they hold strong opinions, humility is evident too.
“You never know if you’re doing the right thing. You gotta temper all your thinking that way,” Doug advises. Even when the two disagree with each other about important life choices, they are able to laugh and remain good-humored. I believe our world, our media, our politicians and even our (my) online conversations would profit as much from their skill of disagreeing agreeably as from any of the other more explicit themes of the film.
At an unscheduled stop on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), we first learn what 180° South is most obviously about. It’s more than travel, sports, adventure and enduring friendship. Just as the original six-month trip in 1968 had helped awaken Yvon and Doug to environmental concerns, so on Easter Island Jeff learns via Jared Diamond of the affects of society’s collective production and consumption.
Throughout the remainder of the film, the theme of ecological conservation is played out in conversations about national parks, hydro-electric dams, indigenous wildlife, sustainable farming, consumerism, commercial fishing, reforestation and even development models.
By juxtaposing unbelievably beautiful landscapes with polluting factories, the film speaks to a number of the major issues discussed in my International Development classes. What kind of society do we wish to promote with our projects and grants? What are the side-effects of well-intentioned efforts? Is all change progress? Should the entire world live the western consumptive lifestyle, or do both developed and developing regions need sustainability models based on something other than continual economic growth?
The film does not attempt to answer these questions, but simply raises the point that we need to look seriously at the way our current lifestyles and policies are affecting our planetary home.
Because of the focus on environmental issues, the final two-thirds of the film has an intrinsic tension between conservation on the one hand and the mass-produced technological innovations that make the trip and film possible on the other (i.e., boats, sports equipment, camera gear, petrol fuels, etc.). The irony of using an extended international trip replete with surf boards, climbing equipment and a full line of Patagonia brand clothes to promote a simpler, less consumer-driven lifestyle is not insignificant, even if the clothes are made of organic cotton.
Don’t get me wrong; I support both the mission and the adventure. However, this review would be lacking if I did not at least name this tension. And this is a conflict I embody as well. For example, by purchasing gasoline for the commute to my peace classes, I am actually funding conflicts in distant regions of the world, not to mention degrading the environment.
Interestingly, few people have high ecological expectations for the average adventure sports flick, but as soon as conservation is mentioned, the standard goes up dramatically. The same is true for Christians. Society does not expect people to be overly kind and generous, but once we start talking about God’s love, the bar rightly moves much higher. This is reality; we cannot avoid it and neither can 180° South. Yet just because talking about something will likely set off hypocrisy alarms does not mean we should avoid the subject. Imperfect Christians should still talk about God’s love and strive to show it, and athletes and companies ought to strive for environmental stewardship even if they are unable to completely eradicate their imprint on the planet.
I know the reality of this ethical struggle does not escape Patagonia’s own soul searching, as they openly acknowledge and work to minimize company operations that have detrimental environmental impacts. Connecting this process with the film, the behind-the-scenes bonus material would have been a great place for the filmmakers to describe the eco-efforts of the athletes as well as how the crew itself embodied the eco- friendly principles promoted in the film. How do they operate that is different from standard methods?
While watching the additional material on the Netflix DVD, I realized my understanding of the purpose of the film—ecological conversation—was too limited.
Yvon shares, “We were hoping to inspire a lot of young people into seeing you can follow your dreams and still be responsible. The idea is that you can follow your own path. And you can pick a path that makes a difference. It’s up to you. That’s what 180® South is really about.” I think that is a quality message for young Adventists. This twist is consistent with a line Jeff says early in the film: “The best journeys answers questions that in the beginning you didn’t even think to ask.”
Regardless of the words promoting a simple lifestyle, my genuine response to the film involves Christmas. I would like Santa Clause to deliver this DVD to a dozen friends on four continents who have shared open roads, single-track trails, climbing beta and smelly tents. Many of my life’s best memories involve adventures with you.
Whatever else this film is about, it reminds me of you.
Jeff Boyd writes for and maintains several blogs, including Adventist Activism.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/2546