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Skywalkers, in Love and Trust

Mon, 07/01/2024 - 13:41
"Skywalkers: A Love Story" follows Angela Nikolau and Ivan Beerkus, Russia's pre-eminent rooftoppers, who have made a career out of scaling some of the world's tallest buildings.
Courtesy of Netflix

"Skywalkers: A Love Story" opens in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on the evening of Dec. 18, 2022. The streets are jammed with raucous crowds cheering the final match of the World Cup.

Cut to an ominous silence as the camera ascends a huge skyscraper. A woman's voice says, "We are high above the World Cup madness, climbing the last super skyscraper on the planet. Security is too busy watching the match to see us sneak by. So, all is going according to plan."

Now cut to a couple in hard hats inside a building under construction. They hear the gears of an elevator moving. "We've definitely been spotted," says the man.

"If they hear us, we'll be locked up," says the woman.

"This climb is more important than all the others. I mean, this climb was supposed to bring us back together," he replies. 

These tense opening moments indicate that "Skywalkers" is both a tale of adventure and a love story. 

We soon learn from newsreel footage that we are watching Angela Nikolau and Ivan Beerkus, a pair of Moscow daredevils who’ve made a career out of scaling some of the world’s tallest buildings, also known as rooftopping. Rooftopping videos, it seems, are exploding in popularity across the internet -- and many of its practitioners, we learn, have plunged to their deaths. 

Filmed over six years in six countries, "Skywalkers" follows Angela and Ivan, Russia’s pre-eminent rooftoppers, on their quest to climb to the top of Merdeka 118 in Malaysia and perform a death-defying stunt on its spire. It will be shown tomorrow at 7 p.m. at Guild Hall as part of HamptonsFilm's SummerDocs series, in partnership with Guild Hall.

"I was an amateur but passionate rooftopper when I was in my teens and twenties," Jeff Zimbalist, the co-director of the film with Maria Bukhonina, said during a phone conversation. Only later, as a journalist, did he learn the practice had a name, "and I started tracking the rise of this phenomenon, looking for a cool story that had more to it than just daredevil antics. That took almost 15 years."

After Angela's rooftopping burst onto social media in 2015, Mr. Zimbalist began to follow her. "I reached out, and she told me she was raised in a traveling circus, and then she introduced me to the best rooftopper in Russia, who was Ivan. They presented each other as rivals or competitors, but you could tell that they had something cooking under the surface. That was when this idea of it being a love story was planted. Could we use extreme climbing as a metaphor for romantic trust?" 

Mr. Zimbalist and his team started filming the couple in 2017, following them to climbs in Moscow, Paris (the spires of Notre Dame); Shanghai, Hong Kong, Bangkok, and elsewhere. Over the years they were known as the top rooftoppers on the planet, with over a million followers on social media.

To describe the footage of their climbs as extraordinary is an understatement. The sight of two figures climbing cranes and spires to unimaginable heights, without harnesses, and with vast cities spread out below, is unforgettable. 

How to film Ivan and Angela on such inaccessible places as cranes and narrow ledges hundreds of feet above the ground? "GoPros, which are action cameras, can be mounted on their bodies and their heads, and sometimes they carry them as well," Mr. Zimbalist explained. "They had a selfie stick to get coverage. Angela was very good at making sure we had angles so we could edit scenes together." The couple also had law-enforcement-level, night-vision body cameras, and drones were essential tools for the filmmakers.

As suspenseful as the film is, "We just kept reminding ourselves that the real vision of this from the beginning, the North Star, is that it's a love story. It was less interesting to us to make a film about the fear of falling from heights, and more interesting to make a film about the fear of falling in love."

The opening scene, where they fear discovery, took place in Merdeka 118, at 2,227 feet high the second-tallest structure in the world. That climb, if successful, would be the culmination of their careers. If not, they would find themselves in a hard-core Malaysian prison.

After sensing security was aware of their presence, but not knowing how or where, they hunkered down, trapped for 30 hours. During that time the film crew remained in communication.

"We kept saying, how can we get you out of there, how can we help," said Mr. Zimbalist. "And they said they were never going to have this chance again. I think the biggest challenge of a project like this, where you’re shooting cinéma vérité over many years, is not knowing what your finish line is, not knowing if you’re going to have a climax, not knowing if you’re going to be able to resolve the question that you set up."

A question-and-answer session with Ms. Bukhonina, the film’s co-director, will follow the screening. "Skywalkers: A Love Story" will be released on Netflix on July 19.

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