Oscar-Winning Documentary Filmmaker Evan Hayes Visits Little Rock, Screens Free Solo

The Arkansas Cinema Society held a screening of the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo as part of its FILMLAND festival, followed by a Q&A with the film’s producer, Evan Hayes.
© National Geographic. Used with permission.

Friday night, the Arkansas Cinema Society held a screening of the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo as part of its FILMLAND festival in downtown Little Rock, followed by a Q&A with the film’s producer, Evan Hayes. The film chronicles the journey of noted free solo climber Alex Honnold and his preparation to free solo climb El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, which is among the tallest rock faces in the world. Free solo climbing is the dangerous and controversial practice of rock climbing without the use of any ropes or safety equipment.

The film has been well received since its release in 2018, garnering several awards including the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. Critics and audiences have praised Free Solo for its nerve-wracking climbing footage as well as its strong emotional core. It examines the mindset of Alex Honnold and what drives him to practice free solo climbing, and it explores themes of risk, fear, and athletic achievement. Producer Evan Hayes, who also participated in an ACS Director’s Panel the next day, provided context for how the film was made, including personal accounts of Alex’s preparation process, filmmaking decisions made during the production, and details of the controversy surrounding the film’s existence. 

Producer Jayme Lemons led the Q&A. Evan Hayes brought his Oscar to the screening. Photo © Andrew Sweatman.

Critics of the practice of free solo climbing argue that documenting free solo climbers is unethical, as it may encourage increasingly dangerous climbing attempts and cause them to risk climbers’ safety or lives. Mr. Hayes addressed this by stressing that his production team was only ever there to support  and observe Alex Honnold and that everyone present was under strict orders never to ask Alex when he might attempt the dangerous climb or otherwise put any pressure on him. “We did not want to push Alex in any way to do something he was uncomfortable with because of the film”,” Hayes said. “The rubric was: Is Alex going to do this? Does he want it to be filmed?”

Though the film has been available to stream online for several months, critics have argued that is especially well-suited to a theater experience. Ben Pearson, Senior Writer at slashfilm.com, wrote, ”…I can’t think of a better way to soak in Honnold’s quest for perfection than on the biggest screen possible.” Near the end of the Q&A, Hayes brought out his Oscar statue for audience members to see and announced that attendees would be able to hold and take photos with the Oscar at the event’s afterparty, held at Little Rock’s The Rail Yard.  Founded in 2017 by filmmakers Jeff Nichols and Kathryn Tucker, the Arkansas Cinema Society has sought to provide these type of enriched viewing experiences and deep dives into culture since its inception through the annual FILMLAND festival as well as a other film screenings through the year. For details on upcoming events, visit https://www.arkansascinemasociety.org/.

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