Film Review: Chasing Niagara

A beautiful but insubstantial look at one daredevil kayaker’s quest to ride Niagara Falls.
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Chasing Niagara comes courtesy of Red Bull Media House—an inescapable fact, given that energy drink’s logo is so ubiquitous (on hats, helmets, t-shirts and other assorted athletic gear) that it renders the film a nonstop commercial for the company’s brand. If such incessant advertising weren’t enough to tip one off to the superficiality of Rush Sturges’ documentary, its glossy sequences of death-defying action—much of it shot with GoPro cameras (another production sponsor!)—do much to turn these nonfiction proceedings into a repetitive, trivial compendium of extreme-sports feats.

Chasing Niagara focuses on Rafa Ortiz, a Mexican kayaker who, in 2011, decided that he wanted to “ride” Niagara Falls—a waterfall that had only previously been successfully traversed by ten people, none of them in a kayak. The inherent danger of such a mission is obvious from the get-go, and underlined by an opening scene in which, during one of many preparatory runs on smaller falls, Rafa’s crewmate Gerd Serrasolses has an accident that ostensibly results in his death. Sturges presents this apparent tragedy through Serrasolses’ own GoPro helmet-cam—replete with his friends giving him CPR—to fully hammer home the potential lethality of this pastime. Yet, given the slick production values, as well as the unseemliness of showing a dying man’s last moments through his own self-shot footage, it’s no surprise that this traumatic incident is eventually revealed to be of the near-miss variety.

Aside from that transparent fake-out, Chasing Niagara charts Rafa’s training for his showdown with Niagara Falls, which involves traveling to American and Mexican waterfalls where he and his mates go over gushing cascades of water at perilous angles, often tossing their oars away mid-flight in order to avoid getting smacked in the head on the way down. Sturges’ footage, often presented in magnificent slow-motion, is nothing short of breathtaking. However, if you’ve seen a kayaker go over a river’s towering edge once, you’ve seen it a hundred times, which means that the film quickly becomes a series of monotonous (if beautiful) sights of men doing incredibly dangerous things to satisfy their “dreams.”

Chasing Niagara is a familiar portrait of young athletes putting their lives at risk for an adrenalized rush and the ensuing satisfaction of having pushed themselves to the limit. Yet Sturges—who’s a famous kayaker and part of Rafa’s team—has no detachment from what he’s depicting, and proves unwilling to, or unable to, genuinely explore the underlying impulses driving Rafa to court an early grave. Whether that’s because Rafa’s motivations are simplistic in nature (i.e., he just loves the thrill of it), or because Sturges wants to keep his heavily sponsored material shallow and easily digestible, it relegates the 75-minute film to a picturesque highlight reel whose endless Rafa-narrated clichés (“Water is life—it shapes its own path”; “Kayaking became a vessel for exploration”) further amplify its insubstantiality.

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