Down the Rabbit Hole (Webster, 2019) is one of the many documentaries showing as part of this year’s Inverness Film Festival, but despite being one of the shorter documentaries I feel it deserves a post of it’s own. Partly due to it having an accompanying photography exhibition but also due to it being so very different from all the rest of it’s compatriots.
First of all, the photography exhibition – which will be lurking around on the 2nd Floor of Eden Court for the rest of the month – which I saw and enjoyed for the first time before seeing the film, but gained a whole new level of appreciation for after having seen the film. For some reason, until I saw this exhibition, I had no real conception that stalactites being wet. Given how they’re formed it makes sense that they would be, but I guess I also thought of them as being wet previously but not currently. I didn’t really think of them as being still-growing, fragile works in progress. Both beautiful and alien, they were created on a timescale beyond human comprehension, like so many things underground they defy so much of what we imagine to be true about the world.
It exhibition location seems unlikely, being up on the first circle where casual visitors are unlikely to pass by, but in fact the location is thematically perfect. Due to the unusual shape of the building, the roof space over the exhibition area forms a sort of cave, especially once the sun has set, placing you in a carefully lit space that only adds to the atmospheric nature of the photographs. If you can, I recommend heading to the middle of the balcony and sitting on the floor with your back to glass wall, looking up at the photographs. It really helps to make you feel like you’re there in the cave with them.
On to the documentary itself, which started as a short about caving and mental health and evolved as the director realised he couldn’t do the subject justice to the subject in such a short run time. The subject of the film – wildlife photographer James Roddie – is refreshingly open and practical, both when he talks about the risks and rewards of both climbing and caving, and especially when he talks about his own struggles with an eating disorder. Particularly when he talks about the way that climbing went from being a respite from his mental health issues to being an enabler of the condition and how he’s recently been able to claim the activity back as something he enjoys and can do for fun rather than in a constant consuming quest for ‘better’.
(Being mildly claustrophobic myself, I’m fascinated by these underground worlds, but would absolutely not cope with going down there myself. That Swiss Cheese crawl is literally the stuff of nightmares! I do love the idea of being a daring adventurer, but I’m definitely not cut out for it.)
The film provoked a lot of the same feelings in me that Free Solo did when I saw it at the start of this year. Although I did always have the reassurance that I’d seen both Roddie and Webster, alive and well introducing the film, those vertigo inducing moments where you genuinely fear for their lives are somehow worse for them being people I’ve actually met. (The creative arts scene in Inverness is pretty small, so there’s a lot of crossover in people you meet and work with over the years.) In a sense it feels like something of a companion piece, bookending a year of documentaries for me. That moment in Uamh nam Fior Iongantais (Cave of True Wonders) where they decide to turn back, feels like a more emotionally honest reflection of the moment in Free Solo when Honnold comes back down off El Capitan. Sometimes you need a friend to give you permission to make the sensible decision.