Review by: Nate Nelson
Chasing Niagara plays February 11 at the St. Mane Theatre in Lanesboro, MN | 4:00 p.m.
When tragedy strikes, it is just a part of human nature to look for the point when it all went wrong. In Rafa Ortiz’s film Chasing Niagara, Ortiz uses the documentary format to trace a perilous journey back to its roots. With a group of fellow kayakers, Ortiz films the preparation of his biggest feat yet: Running Niagara Falls. Yet, while it may have started out as a typical adventure film, an accident midway through sent the production into a spiral. In the end, Chasing Niagara is a visually arresting and well-rounded meditation on the fragility of human life and the lengths people can go to to face that head-on.
Ortiz is a world renowned kayaker, known primarily for his waterfall runs. After years of running some of the most dangerous terrain on Earth, he sets his sight on the vast expanse of Niagara. Amassing a team of equally talented individuals, Ortiz and his crew prepare for this massive run by running numerous incredible locales, including the treacherous Rio Santo Domingo. These runs are absolute nail biters, with multiple camera angles and GoPro footage edited together to give each run it’s own sense of immediacy and danger.
The runs themselves would make for an interesting documentary in their own right, but thanks to one single editing choice, the sequences take on a new meaning. The film begins with a harrowing sequence ending in the apparent death of Gerd Serrasolses which then winds back to where the journey began. By placing this at the beginning instead of just chronologically, Ortiz allows the dangers of his sport to come to the forefront. Though it turns out that Serrasolses survives the attempt, the editing gives the documentary a theme, which many adventure films lack.
Credit goes to the visuals as well. Chasing Niagara is consistently breathtaking. Occasionally, some of the interviews are a little out of focus or shaky, and seem relatively amateurish in the grand scheme of things. However, the moment the kayaks touch the water, the film takes on new life. Lush colors, beautiful editing, and the combination of multiple viewpoints make each sequence individually astounding. These are some of the best action sequences I’ve ever seen, bar none. Ortiz and his crew know what they’re doing with this from top to bottom.
The only real qualm I have with the film, aside from the tonal shift from the intro to the title sequence, is that the film focuses too heavily on the kayaking itself. That’s not to say the kayaking is bad, far from it. However, Chasing Niagara fails to really look into the psyches and connections between the crew members. There’s some analysis here and there, and some interesting interactions, but the film by-and-large avoids deeper looks into anyone but Ortiz himself. Additionally, there isn’t a whole lot of explanation of how they do what they do, only that they do it. This isn’t a huge problem, but for those unaffiliated with professional kayaking, this extra information could’ve allowed for a stronger connection to the crew’s actions.
All-in-all, Chasing Niagara is a masterful adventure documentary. The problems don’t even begin to compare to everything that goes right. With mesmerizing filmmaking, a breathtaking score and impactful story, the film’s message hits like a typhoon. This isn’t just a documentary of kayaking, but a documentary of one man discovering what truly matters in life, and how a person’s experiences can change everything they once thought they knew.