Emmy Award-winning director Michael Brown's The Weight of Water kicked off its successful festival run with a grand prize win at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, the first of several prizes for the inspiring and entertaining feature doc that is currently screening as an Official Selection at the 2019 Heartland International Film Festival in Indianapolis. The film opens with rather stunning beauty, the majestic and nearly unfathomable walls of the Grand Canyon seemingly dwarfing the occasionally placid, occasionally raging Colorado River as it practically swallows this small speck of humanity that we will soon identify as blind adventurer Erik Weihenmayer. No stranger to extreme risk-taking, Weihenmayer has climbed Mount Everest but nothing has ever really prepared him for the challenges he will face in his endeavor to travel in a solo kayak the full length, 277 miles, of the Grand Canyon.
Joined by Indiana native Lonnie Bedwell, who is featured himself in the short film Feel of Vision also screening at Indy Film Fest this year, Weihenmayer is a mesmerizing figure both because of his remarkable strength and his surprisingly transparent vulnerability. While films such as The Weight of Water often cross that unfortunate line into what is now and forever known as "inspiration porn," the truth is that The Weight of Water never does cross that line thanks to Brown's assured direction and Weihenmayer's constant, authentic presence within the fabric of the film.
Weihenmayer, now 50, went totally blind not long after his fiercest advocate, his mother, was killed in a car accident when he was 13-years-old. He'd spent much of his childhood being prepared for the inevitability, a result of retinoschisis, with his mother's advocacy helping to ensure his normalized education would continue even after his physical challenges increased. Guided by his military vet father after his mother's death, Weihenmayer seemingly embraced the challenge, while acknowledging the challenge, of learning how to live without his vision.
In 2001, Weihenmayer became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. By 2002, he had become the first blind person to conquer the Seven Summits. Since then, he's conquered several other summit challenges while gaining a growing reputation as a motivational speaker, author, adventurer, and the co-founder of the non-profit No Barriers. This film, The Weight of Water, centers around his 2014 effort alongside Bedwell to travel a route known by kayakers worldwide as one of the most challenging and formidable whitewater venues.
Weihenmayer is joined, of course, by Brown and his film crew here along with river guides and camera operators. Having only taken up kayaking at the age of 40, Weihenmayer's efforts here are rather remarkable even for someone who has spent his life doing rather remarkable things.
Brown's directorial work here is strong throughout The Weight of Water, from the wisdom of having the narration be largely from Weihenmayer's own voice to the weaving together of Weihenmayer in his more honest, insecure moments including those times when he humbly, honestly reminds all of us that despite all of his successes life with a visual impairment does, in fact, remain quite challenging on a day-to-day basis.
Brown vividly captures just how challenging an effort this undertaking is, the sensory overload that simply has to come with the unpredictable, crashing rapids that toss and turn even the most experienced kayakers and the sense of being completely and utterly at the mercy of elements unknown and unseen. It's remarkable to think about and hypnotic to watch unfold.
The Weight of Water is one of the 2019 Heartland Film Fest's true doc gems, a film that does just about everything right and almost nothing wrong on the way to telling a story that is involving, engaging and incredibly entertaining. For more information on the film, be sure to check out its Facebook page linked to in the credits and if you get a chance to check it out at Heartland it's definitely worth your time.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic