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BMZ Review: Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa
By Herb Lash


BMZ Review of Kilimanjaro: To the Roof of Africa
Written by: Herb Lash
Source: Big Movie Zone
Date: March 2002


Category: Reviews

The premise of filmmaker David Breashears' Big Movie about Mount Kilimanjaro makes a deliberate challenge to the audience's knowledge of the fabled mountain. Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro, countless adventurers' tales, African myths and dreamy post card images have made Kilimanjaro a household name - a sort of geological celebrity. But what do we really know about celebrities life? Getting beneath the clouds shrouding Mt. Kilimanjaro is a lot like following that sort of MTV celebrity who gives a behind the scenes look at the rockstar life with a warning that  - "You think you know, but you have no idea. . ." KILIMANJARO: To The Roof of Africa is a film dedicated to telling us what we do not know. It follows the classic educational Large Format film mission: it informs, it is geared toward the field trip crowd, it is beautiful and it employs a fairly routine style of documentary storytelling. It is an enjoyable film, there are many wonderful images and because it was made with them in mind, kids will like it.

An assemblage of varied climbers team up for an ascent of Kilimanjaro - cameras document their individual discoveries, impressions, revelations and interests as they head toward the summit. There is cool and philosophical Jacob the Tanzanian guide and Kilimanjaro veteran. Youngsters Hansi and Nicole show wide eyed intelligence and determination as they make the tough, but not grueling climb. Young at heart writer Audrey and geologist Roger bring an experience seasoned by more than a few years on the planet. Artsy Danish model/painter Heidi carries good sense along with her good looks. These are multinational, bright and shiny faces ready for adventure. Some people sprinkle bread crumbs on the trail as they go - director Breashears drops factoids as the film follows the climbers through Kilimanjaro's five distinct climate zones. The walk/climb through tropical rainforest, heath, moorland, alpine desert, and thick glacier ice yields up lovely images entirely appropriate for the Giant Screen. This Big Movie leaves no doubt that Mount Kilimanjaro is a truly amazing place.

The film does not attempt to captivate by way of adrenaline or threat of peril. KILIMANJARO was consciously conceived as something apart from an EVEREST style quest for the summit. We are supposed to get to know the mountain as we get to know the varied company of  talented climbers:  five fresh points of introspection meant to help us see and sense the real Kilimanjaro. The standard nature/science Large Format film tags along behind a single dedicated scientist and offers a few moments of personality as he/she follows their scientific bliss. KILIMANJARO steps out of this somewhat rusty mold in featuring an ensemble cast of trekkers - but there is far too little time for any of the climbers to create a real sense of charisma or interesting personal point of view. Each team member gives an on-camera testimonial about their impressions of the journey - sore knees, thoughts of home, expressions of wonder and funny asides. . .These video insert interviews are only mildly interesting - soundbites meant to humanize the rather deliberate pace of the film. This is not SURVIVOR, there is no social interplay, intrigue or nonsense going on among this group - they are simply a bunch of carefully chosen, happy campers heading up the mountain.

The film's reality is structured on a climb from bottom to top - but there is no victorious flag planting upon summiting Kilimanjaro. The lessons are supposed to be more internal - the journey is the thing.  There is little doubt that each of the featured climbers comes away touched and exhilarated by the end of the climb. But the journey is less immersive for the audience - the sensation is one of  being taught and not one of discovery.  There is a moment in the film where the climbers come across the high-up bones of an elephant and a leopard. It is a moment of mystery - why or how these animals clambered up here is not known. This admission of not knowing in a film that knows so much is a particularly refreshing moment - Kilimanjaro refuses to give away all its secrets.

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