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BASE Jumping Into Thin Air

New documentary Sunshine Superman sheds light on a timely subject

It’s a common saying that you would follow someone you love off a cliff, but Jean and Carl Boenish—the subjects of Sunshine Superman, a documentary premiering May 22—take that cliché to a very literal place.

Often called the “godparents of BASE jumping,” the Boenishes met in the late 1970s. She was in college and he was an established skydiver and freefall cinematographer. At that time, L.A. was changing. The city was seeing the rise of its first skyscrapers, and along with them came a new group of daredevils who called themselves BASE jumpers. BASE is an acronym for building, antenna, span and earth—so in other words, anything tall enough to jump off of with a parachute. BASE jumping was illegal, so its practitioners’ lives were spent evading the law for the next (ever higher) rush. Sunshine Superman, making use of Carl Boenish’s extensive footage of he and Jean’s adventures, brings this pivotal moment in “extreme sporting” to life and also highlights the Boenish’s romance, with retrospective commentary from present-day Jean.

“Really, this film is a love story,” says Sunshine Superman’s director, Marah Strauch.” It’s a love story for base-jumping, and also a love story between these two people.”

Carl and Jean Boenish

Strauch originally found the material for her directorial debut nearly a decade ago in her father’s basement, in a box that had once belonged to her uncle—a former BASE jumper who died in a car accident. Her uncle had some of Boenish’s movies on VHS tapes, as well as some footage of his own. “My producer and I found a VHA player and projected the 16mm films onto a sheet. We just thought, wow—this is beautiful. It’s something that really hadn’t had a feature documentary made about it, and hadn’t been seen on the big screen in the way we wanted to show it.”

Like many stories worth telling, however, this one is not without tragedy. In 1986, in a highly publicized television event, Carl and Jean set the first BASE jumping record for Guinness World Records, off of a cliff called Trollveggen in Norway. Two days later, having left Jean at home, Carl jumped off a different peak nearby and was killed.

Marah Strauch

Marah Strauch

Given the death of renowned BASE jumper Dean Potter earlier this week, Sunshine Superman couldn’t be timelier. And while the documentary is visually breathtaking, its staying power is owed to something else, something subtly present in the coverage of Potter’s death as well. While there is a sense of loss—the loss of a human who inspired many others in their engagement with seemingly superhuman feats—everyone appears to agree there is no place for outraged grief. These men died young, but they chose to live their lives in a way that makes it impossible for others to shout and shake their fists to the heavens when it turned out that they weren’t superhuman after all.

It was more important to live on the edge of death than not to live at all, and so when death caught up with them, there was no one—not disease or psychosis or war or even God—to blame. If there were ever lives that can simply be remembered without the obligation of mourning, it is those of the almost-Supermen.