Review of Emi Katayama’s With the Wind

With the Wind is a new feature-length documentary, directed by Emi Katayama, on the art of hot-air ballooning and the exhilarating but often dangerous sport of gas ballooning. In the film, the viewer is invited into the electrifying but equally hazardous world of gas balloon racing.

The film follows the journeys of three exceptional pilots, the American balloonists Richard Abruzzo, Carol Rymer Davis, and Bills Hughes, as they demonstrate first-hand the risks and challenges of competitive balloon racing. Abruzzo and Rymer Davis comprise an award-winning gas balloon racing team, and the film captures their extraordinary, challenging journey step-by-step as they compete in risky, long-distance races to defend their world title in the Gordon Bennett competition, the planet’s oldest aviation race. The viewer watches Abruzzo and Rymer Davis float idyllically in a small basket and also struggle to maintain control of their balloon in treacherous weather. They are often pushed to the limits of both mental and physical exhaustion, and their frustration and their make-no-compromise quest to win the world title is fascinating and gripping to watch, especially as their journey, full of triumphs and setbacks, is met with tragedy.

In contrast with Abruzzo and Rymer Davis’s perilous journey, Katayama’s film explores the story of Bill Hughes, a hot-air balloon pilot who quietly shares his passion for the sport by flying passengers over great stretches of upstate New York. Hughes’s famed balloon displays the image of a seagull, and pays tribute to Richard Bach’s iconic novella, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Bach’s novella explores themes of self-reliance, selfhood, and enlightenment as it follows the seaward journeys of its titular character across continents and oceans. Like Jonathan, Hughes arrives at understandings of his own self-worth and quest as he shares his knowledge and love of ballooning with others.

Katayama’s film explores the triumphs and tribulations of recreational and competitive hot-air ballooning with nuance, empathy, and breathtaking cinematography. Katayama, who is a writer and director from New York City and who has specialized in programming for Japanese national broadcasters, artfully captures the lyricism and stakes of contemporary hot-air balloon racing and culture. Watching the journeys of these hot-air balloonists on screen is both evocative and thrilling. The documentary is a must-see film for anyone who has ever been fascinated by aviation races and extreme sport competitions, and for anyone who has wanted to travel and see the world from the perch of a hot-air balloon.  – Rita Banerjee