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The 2012 film Kon-Tiki was a great film on a technical level and also benefited from a very interesting premise. A man sailing across the Pacific in a raft? Sounds crazy doesn't it? Based on true events, the story underwent some changes to heighten the drama and tension level which I would say is overall a partial success. If you want to experience the real thing though, I suppose you can't get any more real than the actual documentary of Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki expedition.
Kon-Tiki won an Oscar in 1951 and is one of only two Norwegian films to have done so. The other Oscar was won by the animated short The Danish Poet in 2007. It's pretty easy to see why Kon-Tiki was awarded its Oscar because even 63 years later, it's a delightful documentary. What Thor Heyerdahl and his crew were able to achieve is nothing short of monumental and it's superbly recounted in this 1950 documentary piece.
Thor Heyerdahl is an ethnographer who begins by explaining his theory that the natives in Polynesia are possibly immigrants from South America. This goes against common thinking of the time which says that these natives are most likely from Asia. South American natives only had the use of small rafts made of balsawood, so it would be impossible for them to make the trip across the Pacfic. Using the same native techniques to build the same sort of raft, Thor Heyerdahl and a small crew set out from Lima, Peru with the intention of reaching Polynesia. It could very well be the final time anyone would ever see them alive.
The documentary begins by first outlining what Thor's theory is as well as giving all the details about the trip. The narration is charming and amusing at good times. What's pretty interesting to see after having watched the 2012 Kon-Tiki is that there are quite a few things that aren't covered or were obviously changed. That's understandable given the need for making the story into a digestible movie which I guess would've sagged without the additional drama. Compared to the 2012 dramatization, you'd think that Thor and his crew went on a vacation for how relaxed and easy going things seem to be on the Kon-Tiki. Makes me wish I could spend a hundred days on a raft in the Pacific with no phone and no internet.
The documentary does a great job at giving fascinating insight into how things were done and why. In a way, this trip was a scientific excursion that went about testing and discovering lots of new things. Take the raft for example which was built under native specifications. The balsawood was cut while it was still alive and wet which meant that it resisted water being absorbed into its core. Without nails, everything was lashed together with rope which according to everyone else would eventually fail, leaving Thor and his crew floating on logs in the middle of the ocean. In reality, the rope actually dug itself deeper into the logs and made the whole structure even safer as opposed to nails which would've removed all pliability. As the natives would say, you can't resist nature, you have to yield to it.
The way in which the film is shot is extremely simple. Whoever would be holding the camera would basically just hold it in a certain direction while capturing what was going on. You feel the waves moving the Kon-Tiki up and down as you watch, making you think that you're actually there. Some shots were actually done by having a crewmember or two floating in a dinghy attached by a rope at a distance from the Kon-Tiki. If that rope were to give out, they'd most likely be goners since the Kon-Tiki was actually going pretty quick and couldn't stop or slow down. Let's not even talk about all the sharks that were following the raft.
Kon-Tiki is a monumental documentary that goes great distances to make you feel like you're actually on the raft. You get a great feel for what it was like to live on the raft as well as getting great explanations for just about everything. I love the intelligent insights and it's amazing/scary to think that if this expedition were a failure, we'd probably never have this documentary to watch.
58~ minute version available here:
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In 2 official lists
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This movie ranks #34 in Harvard's Suggested Film Viewing: Non-Fiction Films
This movie ranks #45 in BFI's 100 Documentary Films