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“Sunshine Superman” review

Written by Mara

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Originally printed in issue #66 (June 2015) of Blue Skies Magazine.
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“If there are mountains let’s climb ‘em. If there are buildings let’s jump off of ‘em.”

For a long time, Carl Boenish has been a legend to skydivers and BASE jumpers. He is considered the father of BASE jumping, and his innovative videography of skydiving and BASE was hugely influential in spreading awareness of those sports to the mainstream in the 1970s and 80s. But outside of airsports communities, today almost no one knows who he is.

Sunshine Superman, the new documentary by Marah Strauch, is poised to change that. I attended a press screening of the film in April, and I can safely say that this film is going to appeal to the mainstream in much the same way that Carl’s work did.

The movie features countless clips of Carl’s original 16mm footage alongside interviews with everyone from his wife and BASE partner Jean Boenish to Bill Wednt, the Yosemite park ranger responsible for first deciding to officially allow BASE in the park on a limited permit basis, then responsible for banning it. The film includes some reenactments, of things like a car driving along a road, but all of the skydiving and BASE footage is of the actual original jumps and jumpers. I cannot exaggerate how amazing this is, and how rare. How often when history is being made is one of the key participants a filmmaker who insists on filming every last bit of it?

And the footage is spectacular. When Carl and his friends did their first jumps from El Capitan in Yosemite, Carl had multiple cameras running including setups rigged to the jumpers’ helmets. For the first building jump his crew completed, in Houston, Texas, Carl actually hired a helicopter to get outside video. For him, the filmmaking was as important as the jumping, even when it added extra complications. Nick Di Giovanni’s writeup of BASE history includes a quote from Tom Start stating, ”You never want to go anywhere with Carl Boenish. He makes you walk up and down the same sections of the trail over and over as he films from this angle, that angle, then another angle.”

However frustrating his obsession with recording might have occasionally been at the time, the payoff for us, his future audience, is absolutely priceless. Marah Strauch’s team has done an amazing service in restoring much of his footage (100,000 feet of 16mm film in reversal stock!), and Jean Boenish has given us all a big gift in protecting it and now sharing it.

I felt that the one deficit in the film was the lack of tying Carl’s work to the modern BASE world. What Carl started with modified sky gear, notes scribbled at a coffee table, and sheer gumption has exploded into a diverse world of specialized equipment, ever-expanding possibility, and milestones realized all over the world. (The closest the film gets to hinting at this is the final scene, of a wingsuiter successfully completing the jump that took Carl’s life.) It touches only lightly on the controversies that arose around BASE, resulting in its status as a generally illegal activity today—at least in the US, the very country where it began. People outside the community watching the film will end with little knowledge of what BASE has become today, although the spirit of the activity does shine brightly throughout the film.

But those of us in and connected to the community—we know. And what we see in the film is a joyous, madcap, intelligent, shining reflection of BASE and BASE jumpers today. It rings deeply true, from the baffled park ranger asking, “How do you herd of a bunch of cats?” to the circus antics. From the intersection of intellectual analysis and physical exuberance to the wide grins and joie de vivre, from the dreams dashed to the dreams achieved—it’s all there.

Like Carl, this film is going to speak to skydivers and BASE jumpers, while also acting as an emissary to the rest of the world about why we love this crazy sport. Like Carl, it uplifts, inspires, and moves the progression of humanity and our dreams further along. We can’t ask for more than that.

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