2024 Hot Docs 'Fly': The thrills, death and community of base jumping shown in National Geographic documentary

Filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau stayed away from a 'generically clean' depiction of the extreme sport

Espen Fadnes and Julia Botelho fly their wingsuits in Chamonix, France. (Reel Peak Films)
Espen Fadnes and Julia Botelho fly their wingsuits in Chamonix, France. (Reel Peak Films)

Filled with thrilling footage of a community many know little about, filmmakers Shaul Schwarz and Christina Clusiau give us a glimpse into the world of base jumping in the National Geographic documentary Fly (part of the 2024 Hot Docs Festival in Toronto). Featuring three couples who truly live life on the edge.

Fly is an exhilarating adventure that will have you at the edge of your seat. A story of love, death, family, emotion and adventure, Schwarz and Clusiau have crafted a beautifully complex, and visually stunning, film you need to see.

The journey to make Fly began when climber and base jumper Dean Potter was telling the filmmakers about a group of climbers that discovered base jumping. As Schwarz recalled to Yahoo Canada, he heard that people were "dying like flies." Before the filmmakers had a chance to check out this activity, planning to do a short film, Potter died. But the idea to create a documentary based on this community remained, leading the filmmakers to Norway to meet base jumpers.

Schwarz and Clusiau then heard of Jimmy Pouchert and Marta Empinotti, known as "mom and pop," pioneers in the base jumping world. Pouchert introduced Schwarz and Clusiau to wingsuit pilot Scotty Bob Morgan, who loves the adrenaline rush, and he ends up falling in love with Julia Botelho Morgan, a Brazilian lawyer turned base jumper. Then Morgan introduced the filmmakers to couple Espen Fadnes and Amber Forte, the picture of resilience in Fly, after Forte experiences a devastating injury.

Amber Forte and Espen Fadnes at the top of a mountain in Chamonix, France. (Reel Peak Films)
Amber Forte and Espen Fadnes at the top of a mountain in Chamonix, France. (Reel Peak Films)

For Forte, in terms of what made her want to participate in fly, she stressed that she has a motto with Fadnes that they say "yes" to things that come their way.

"It's been our dream to be professionals in the sport, for a really long time, and to have the chance to share your story with something like this was something we talked about for many years," Forte said.

"I just remember Espen telling me that was happening ... and then I had the injury, and I just got even more excited about the chance to share that story. Because it's been a very important process, ... [having] the chance to share it and hope that maybe other people get inspired, and believe that they can also come back from something that is really hard to deal with."

Captured on camera, we see Forte take her first jump after her injury, in a moment that is particularly emotional, and nerve-wracking.

"It felt like a very empowering moment," Forte said. "[There were] many times where I was not sure if I was going to make it, and there were moments where I was just straight down, thinking I wasn't going to make it there."

"I had one cameraman with me who wasn't going to jump. ... I wanted to ... make my own choices and take control of the situation. And it was really cool to get myself there and then assessing the conditions. It was actually quite a bit windy and I was considering maybe hiking down, and then I decided to jump anyway. ... It really was quite similar to my first ever skydive, I did that by myself. ... You're so excited and you want to just tell somebody about it. There's no one to tell and you're just like, wow, I'm just going to take it all in. It was a big moment."

There are different perspectives of base jumping that we see in the film. For example, Forte explains in Fly that it's really that feeling of flying through the air to appeals to her, while Fadnes is more of the risk seeker.

"What I perceive as risk, scary or dangerous, for him it's not, because he has so much more experience with it," Forte said.

"When I said that I was a very different version of myself and I have also learned to know Espen a lot better. I do sometimes get a bit shocked with the things that he says just, 'Yeah, no problem.' But now I've learned that's kind of his go-to. ... We have very different ways of dealing with fear and something that is dangerous. ... He has a really high ability to differentiate actual risk and felt risk, whereas I have more of a tendency to kind of crumble a little bit, with felt risk, and that holds me back a lot. ... I find myself freezing because something's scary."

Amber Forte and Espen Fadnes train for an acro wingsuiting competition in Alvor, Portugal. (Reel Peak Films)
Amber Forte and Espen Fadnes train for an acro wingsuiting competition in Alvor, Portugal. (Reel Peak Films)

A core element of Fly is the way the film really puts an emphasis on the community aspect of this sport, which is particularly attractive in a circumstance where, once each person jumps, they're on their own.

"There were points in the edit where we were pushing one direction or another, and maybe not having as much of that, and I think we kept on going back to this same kind of monster that we started with, and it's really first and foremost about this community," Clusiau said. "What we saw was the most unique thing is that these individuals ... walk all the way up to the exit point and be friends and hang out, and have this collective experience, but the minute they jump off the cliff, it's individually just them. But then they land and it's a community again."

The saddest moments of Fly come as death starts to be a reality for the documentary participants, which was something the filmmakers discussed a lot, in terms of how to include death in the film.

"I think one thing that we said is that we never really wanted to show a full video of somebody going in, [it] was more important as a reflection of how the characters feel about the loss," Clusiau explained.

"We do come from a very journalistic background and very raw filmmaking, ... but I think that had limits here and it's so important we established this idea of cutting to black right before, and different elements, to make you feel really close," Schwarz added.

"A lot of films that are made about the sport and extreme sports, ... they all feel very generically clean. That's not interesting to us. It's not the movies we make. But I think that you have to find that line of how to respect it, and it is a human death. But also really bring you into a very front seat feeling of that moment."

Fly is coming to National Geographic Channel and Disney+ in Canada, Hulu in the U.S., later this year