When I was a kid—okay, when I was in my early 20s—I spent a fair bit of time sneaking onto the rooftops of Washington, D.C., as well as some of the radio antennas in the surrounding suburbs. This was distinct from the rock climbing I was doing two or three days a week at the short crags at Great Falls along the Potomac River—getting on top of roofs wasn’t about the physical challenge or learning a sequential dance, it was about adventure and uncertainty and yes, sneakiness and breaking rules.
Fortunately, this was long before 9/11 and Homeland Security. What my friends and I were doing was of course not technically legal, which I guess made it illegal, but we were happy just clambering up the the outsides of relatively low buildings to watch the lights of the city from a private and surreptitious perch. Breaking a lock or actually entering a building was a line we never considered crossing.
But still, when a 19-year-old Russian roofer named Kirill Oreshkin says he finds freedom on the roofs of Moscow, I do get it, even though he very deliberately breaks his way in. For a few delightful moments, you’re experiencing something special, private, and rare. The air feels different, the views are sublime.
Kirill, though, is a lost child, running from the Army draft, indifferent to college, no direction in his life. Most of the coverage I’ve seen of roofers is dramatic, glorifying of accomplishments and outlaw behavior, with the focus on the money shot far above a city. With “The Hanging” doc, I don’t know precisely what the filmmakers intended, but there’s no glory in Kirill’s life, even when he tags the much-coveted “Moscow stars.” His friends are reluctant participants in his ventures, they think he’s going to get killed, they know he’s crossed the line. Kirill himself seems benumbed. There’s no happiness there, no joy, not even a high five or yelp of accomplishment.
And yet, this film is a fascinating cinéma vérité look at a pursuit that’s all too easy to dismiss as stupid punk hijinks. It’s rich in pathos from the very first frame to the last, and I was surprised to find myself sucked in to the very end. Maybe I shouldn’t have been—The Hanging won the award for best climbing film at Telluride Mountainfilm last year, and having served on a jury for the festival in 2016, I know their deliberations are thoughtful. Perhaps in Kirill they saw the universal: that we’re all looking for something in these physical tests, in these adventures into the unknown, and some us find it, some of us don’t, and some of don’t even know it when we do.