What if video recorders had been available to Roman chariot racers? Greek marathoners? Medieval jousters? What astonishing footage they would have produced, not only for each period's fans, but for those in the future who yearned to know about each sport's early days.
Although there are plenty of videos of contemporary sports, few are around that chronicle their beginnings. Except for BASE jumping -- building, antenna, span, Earth (cliff). That's because Carl Boenish -- a Southern California engineer who is considered the father of an extreme pursuit born in the early 1980s that involves donning a parachute or wingsuit and leaping from soaring fixed heights like mountains, cliffs, bridges and high-rise buildings -- was also a filmmaker. Before each jump, Boenish strapped a clunky video camera to his helmet and pushed the "record" button. So did his wife and kindred spirit, Jean.
88 Cast: Documentary with Carl Boenish, Jean Boenish, Marah Strauch, Cecilie Bull, Eric Bruggemann, Christian Bruno, Jake Suffian
Director: Marah Strauch
Rating: PG, for thematic elements, language, smoking, brief nude image
Running time: 100 minutes
That 16mm footage, along with skillfully interwoven re-enactments and aerial photography, are the basis for Sunshine Superman, a heart-in-the-throat documentary by Marah Strauch.
An avid skydiver, the exuberant and utterly fearless Boenish made 1,500 parachute jumps in 15 years. Then he wondered what else might be out there. His answer: using parachutes to jump off the likes of Yosemite National Park's 3,000-foot El Capitan to free-fall for 1,000 feet before pulling the cord on the 'chute -- dangerous and exhilarating and absolutely against Yosemite's regulations.
In Boenish's opinion, "Many man-made laws are meant to be broken." His efforts led to the park allowing BASE jumping for a few months in 1980, but now it's illegal in all national parks. (That didn't stop highly experienced BASE jumpers Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, who leapt off Yosemite's Taft Point at dusk on May 16 and plunged to their deaths.)
First-time director Strauch, a visual artist, knew all about BASE as a kid; her dad was a rock climber and her uncle was a BASE jumper who had collected some of Boenish's films, which were hugely popular in the skydiving and BASE jumping communities. She assembled astonishingly frank, funny and revealing interviews with some of the sport's pioneers, who are now comfortably middle-aged, and combined them with Boenish's riveting footage of brightly clad daredevils slicing through the air alongside breathtaking rock formations, soaring skyscrapers in Los Angeles, Houston and Memphis, and other fixed objects.
Add to the mix Boenish's charming, childlike, almost maniacal personality and the oddity of watching Jean, who admits she was often mistaken for a librarian, cheerfully bolt to the edge of a cliff and launch off -- an action that seems utterly impossible to many of us -- and Strauch had the makings of a documentary that puts many an action-packed narrative film to shame.
The unabashed freedom and high spirits of the film are almost overshadowed by the brutally sobering ending, which holds back nothing as it chronicles Boenish's devastating death on July 7, 1984, while jumping off a Norwegian cliff -- deemed too dangerous to use -- when performing a Guinness World Records-setting jump he successfully completed two days earlier.
The cameras were rolling on that day, as on all other days. But those images, chronicling the last minutes of a groundbreaking athlete whose passion overwhelmed all other concerns, were destroyed.
MovieStyle on 06/19/2015
Print Headline: Sunshine Superman