Former photojournalist and cinematographer Liam Le Guillou brings a lot of Werner Herzog drama and breathless, narrated suspense to his feature documentary debut, “An Unknown Compelling Force.”
“Nature calls the shots out here,” he emphasizes, speaking of the snowy Ural mountains above the Siberian Arctic Circle. He went there to solve a mystery he stumbled across on Google, and he isn’t shy about striking just the right Herzogian Heroic pose and tone as he does it.
“I don’t like ‘We don’t know’ as an answer!”
What got his attention was a sort of Soviet era “Picnic at Hanging Rock,” only not fiction. A group of mostly-student hikers, members of a university “explorer’s club,” died near a peak known as “The Dead Mountain” in 1959. The deaths, investigated at the time, were “mysterious,” no matter what the Soviet authorities said.
The hikers were ill-clothed and a great distance from their tent, in sub-zero temperatures. The tent was sliced up, and the victims had various evident and even bizarre injuries. There was evidence of radioactivity on some of their clothes. They’d been taking photos on this trip, one was of a fuzzy image of a two-legged figure in the distance, and in a “Grizzly Man” touch, the last shot was a blur of bright lights, seemingly in the night sky.
This is the famous Dyatlov Pass Incident, with a piece of little-visited geography named for the leader of their expedition, one of the victims — Igor Dyatlov. It’s been the subject of many a Russian “Unsolved Mystery/In Search Of…” program, and even a mini-series.
As Le Guillou asks around, various Russian authorities on the incident suggest he come see for himself and take an outsider’s look at this mystery. So he does.
Was it an avalanche, mass hysteria, an animal attack or an assault by a “Soviet Yeti” (abominable snowman)? Was it aliens, or a military cover-up of something the “tourists” saw? Did the hikers turn on each other? Might the indigenous tribespeople living in this remote part of the world have had a hand in what happened?
Every scenario, Le Guillou finds, has its backers, even the wackier ones. As he and a camera operator make their own trek — as part of a team — to the still-unpopulated area where this occurred, he and we get a feeling for how hostile and unforgiving that environment remains, and how difficult it will be to find answers to a 60 year-old mystery.
Interviewing Russian authors, “Dyatlov Society” fanatics and a criminologist, and an American coroner and a retired FBI agent, Le Guillou revisits the case, looking at files released after the collapse of the Soviet Union, hunting for inconsistencies, hints of a cover-up directed from higher up, sealing up blind alleys as he seeks new interpretations of the facts-as-we-know-them.
Using extensive still photos, both from the hikers and the later “official” search and discovery of their bodies, readings from the autopsy, investigation and even from the hiker’s field diaries, the film personalizes the young victims, shares (censored) post-mortem photos, hears from people in the original search party and scholars studying those indigenous people as Le Guillou tries to shoot down hypotheses, one by one.
The filmmaker/narrator maintains our interest in this admittedly fascinating forensic documentary with stretches of breathless narration, underscored with dramatic music. Le Guillou’s odd Anglo-European (he’s British) accent is rendered more Werner Herzog-like with his cadences, his earnest way of leaning in to emphasize danger from the elements or…finding the REAL truth.
Reading the Wikipedia summary of the latest turns and findings on the case — which has been reopened and closed and reopened again — you can see that although our filmmaker is sure he’s got the answer, others are still seeing evidence pointing in other directions.
“An Unknown Compelling Force,” which takes its title from the original case’s noncommittal conclusion, makes a case for “case closed,” backed up by experts and the filmmaker’s entertaining sense of dramatic hype. Has he solved it? Watch it and see.
MPA Rating: unrated, graphic scene photos
Cast: Liam Le Guillou, Svetlana Oss, Ken Holmes, Mick Fennerty, Natalia Sakharova, Yuri Kuntsevich, others
Credits: Directed, written and narrated by Liam Le Guillou. A 1091 release.
Running time: 1:47