AFI Docs '15: "The Three Hikers"

Much like 2014’s hit “Citizen Four”, “The Three Hikers” informs us of a story that received national attention. While most of us remember the story of three American hikers- Sarah Shourd, Shane Bauer, and Josh Fattal- who were detained against their will in July 2009, we don’t know the story from an insider’s perspective. The documentary gives us an intimate portrayal of the journey of the families of the political prisoners.

On July 31, 2009 Iranian border guards took Sarah, Shane and Josh into custody for crossing into Iran while hiking near the border. As the film begins we never see the three in an interview setup, but hear them in voiceover with reenactments visually detailing what happened. Occasionally we see footage taken by the hikers in the days leading up to being detained. The parallel story that runs is the families’ reaction to the news of their child/brother/sister being detained, drawing us in to the conflict and keeping us on pins and needles even though we know the outcome.

In truth, “The Three Mothers” may be a better title for the film because the story follows their fight to free their children. It’s in their story that the universal truth of the impact that a mother’s love can have on a person, situation, event, and beyond is told!  The emotional journey is arduous, beautiful, and universally understood. The film also shows other family members (including Sarah after she was freed) who were truly integral in fighting for the hikers’ release. 

Writer/director Natalie Avital strays away from the typical talking head set up usually seen in documentaries and keeps it intimate by getting family member’s thoughts on the go or in their homes. Going against having family members constantly give feedback to the camera in a controlled environment allows viewers to get a fly on the wall view that feels more personal rather than clinical. Avital obviously had the families’ confidence and trust as evident by the openness of each person who gave an interview.

Many documentaries end after a climactic event, and in this case it’s the release of Shane and Josh. In fact, the emotional reunion of them with their families would leave viewers on a high note by itself in which we can assume they lived “happily ever after”. Yet Avital continued to capture their lives after their release showing Shane and Sarah’s marriage, Josh becoming a father, and the group’s pursuit of advocacy. By taking the film a step further, it answers the "what happened?" after their release and gives closure to the tumultuous part of their lives but instills the hope and power the hikers have from bouncing back from it.

The film has its slow moments and the reenactments feel rushed and disconnected from the film at times, but overall it’s a solid documentary. There’s no question that the hikers and their families are closer because of this traumatic period in their lives. For all involved, they answered the question of: how far would you go to save a loved one? 

Rating: B

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