Sundance 2024: Skywalkers documentary saves the best for last (review)

The Skywalkers: A Love Story documentary from filmmaker Jeff Zimbalist tells the story of two Russian free climbers who take on the world’s tallest buildings. I almost had a heart attack watching it.
17th Annual Creative Coalition Spotlight Initiative Awards Gala
17th Annual Creative Coalition Spotlight Initiative Awards Gala / Araya Doheny/GettyImages

When I first heard the title Skywalkers: A Love Story at Sundance, I thought it was yet another film or documentary in the Star Wars universe. That’s kind of how my 1980s brain works. I was thinking, like the documentary on the infamous Star Wars Christmas special, this is another property in the Star Wars lexicon that I just found out about. Anyway, I was confused.

But then I saw the promo poster for the film at Sundance, with two free climbing artists atop a skyscraper, and I finally understood. And it also took my breath away.

At the heart of Skywalkers is the love story, one that is tested by and built on trust. We follow the two rooftoppers, Angela Nikolau and Ivan Beerkus when they start out as rivals. Why would somebody do something this risky and frankly, crazy?

Dating back to 2018, Part I gives us Nikolau’s background. Having grown up in the circus thanks to her circus artist parents. She describes her early childhood as a happy one, a happiness that was disrupted by her father’s departure when he fell in love with another woman. Nikolau describes her mother’s decline into depression, with her grandmother stepping in to help raise her. We understand that this is where her distrust in relationships is rooted, while her grandmother helps instill Nikolau’s fierce independence. It’s the combination of her independence and gymnast training that set Nikolau apart, as not only one of the few female rooftoppers, but also one that adds breathtaking artistic touches to her climbs (her use of rhythmic gymnastic props were a particularly beautiful effect for me).

Part II mines Beerkus’s background, which encompasses his parents’ turbulent arguments, transpiring in the teenager getting involved with a local gang. Beerkus’s rooftop skills were honed while the gang of boys would climb on top of Moscow’s tallest buildings and drink. The Russian left the gang behind, but the thrill and challenge of rooftop climbing stuck, becoming a therapeutic escape that he would eventually hone into free climbing fame.

The two rooftoppers meet up to accomplish a project in China, brought together by one of their sponsors. The two fall in love and we witness the progression of their love story, as two who inspire each other to create breathless ethereal images while undergoing unbelievable risks and dangers. Equipped with Go Pros, Beerkus and Nikolau provide much of the footage, deftly interweaved by director Jeff Zimbalist (a former rooftopper himself). Their love story is charming, but then the documentary heads into difficult territory as the fights ensue. Beerkus’s concerns for Nikolau’s safety intensifies, eventually clashing with Nikolau’s fierce independence.

Will they make it, or won’t they? The strength of their relationship becomes questionable. The war with Ukraine injects further stress into the relationship, understandably as sponsorships dry up and travel bans complicate making it to their destinations. This is also the part that bogs down the documentary a bit. It’s not due to the relationship tension (which did drag on a bit too long, IMO, but is also understandable against the backdrop of the Russian-Ukraine War), but this is the part that prompted a lot of questions for me. I kept wondering how they fund their expeditions and keep their stuff. Who are their sponsors? These were left unanswered.

A last attempt to save their relationship is where the documentary soars. In exhilarating fashion, Beerkus and Nikolau target Malaysia’s Merdeka 118, which at the time of filming was the world’s tallest building. What transpires is thrilling filmmaking at its best. The two dare devils take months to plan like it’s a high stakes heist reminiscent of Oceans 11. It is high stakes. Within the span of 48 hours, we watch the two renegades sneak their way through a connected mall and manage to get past security at first, only to be detected by one of the cameras later, and the hunt is on. Beerkus and Nikolau evade them by constructing a makeshift “cave” where they’re trapped for more than 20 hours. If they were to get caught, they wouldn’t get just a slap on the wrist, but a serious prison sentence. Going to the bathroom is an issue and they run out of water, which Beerkus is able to scrounge up at one point. The hours are truly terrifying and I found myself on the edge of my seat from the very start of this sequence and I didn’t let up until I saw the credits.

Beerkus and Nikolau do manage to get to the top, but that’s not the most harrowing part. In order to reach the upmost point, they have to precariously climb a 150 foot spire, where they plunk down a piece of board to stand on and perform their balletic “swan” lift move. I have to admit that the penultimate move was stunning, despite my better judgement.

I was torn watching the film because you can’t help rooting for them, you really can’t. But I also don’t want any young person seeing their fame and daredevil tactics and be encouraged to do the same. What’s glossed over in the film are the several rooftop individuals who have died trying to attempt what Beerkus and Nikolau seem to do with ease.

A special treat for the audience at Sundance was the surprise appearance of Beerkus and Nikolau for the Q & A afterwards, despite travel difficulties with Russia. It was exciting to see them live and to hear from them directly about the their adventures. The director and the rooftoppers also let slip that there might not only be a wedding in the future, but one that will likely involve some form of artistic climbing.

I saw this with caution because I don’t want to encourage this kind of thrill-seeking, but Skywalkers: A Love Story makes for fascinating viewing. And it really is a testament to love.

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