In 1959, nine hikers — mostly college students, all of whom had prior experience exploring rugged terrain — set out into the Ural Mountains, located in a frozen stretch of what was then the Soviet Union. When they failed to return, an intense search eventually yielded a grim discovery: all nine were dead. Their bodies were found mysteriously far from their campsite, severely underdressed for frigid temperatures, and some had hideous injuries that couldn’t be explained.
Over 60 years later, the Dyatlov Pass incident is an unsolved mystery that continues to fascinate the curious — including filmmaker Liam Le Guillou, who became so obsessed with the story that he made a documentary about it. An Unknown Compelling Force follows Le Guillou as he travels to Russia and actually retraces the hikers’ steps while chasing down every clue and scrap of evidence he can find that might help the true story come to light. Gizmodo spoke with Le Guillou to learn more about the film and his journey; we also have an exclusive clip from the documentary to debut.
Cheryl Eddy, Gizmodo: Can you recall when you first heard about the Dyatlov Pass incident? What was it about the mystery that drew you in and made you want to make a documentary about it?
Liam Le Guillou: The first time I heard about it — honestly, I can’t say exactly when that was, because I’m a fan of mystery stories so I think I’d heard of it a number of times. But the reason that I wanted to make a documentary about it was, there was a kind of mockumentary produced by the Discovery Channel. I started watching that, and it began like a real investigation so I was hooked from the start — and then it went into this kind of fake story about how the Russian Yeti did it. It drove me crazy because I really wanted to understand, and that was a big catalyst for me to jump on the internet [to learn more]. I emailed one of the founding members of the Dyatlov Foundation in Russia, kind of saying, “Hey, I’m hearing all these weird stories. What’s the truth?” To my surprise he emailed me back, and that was kind of the birth of the project.
Gizmodo: In the film, you express some concern about how you’ll be received in Russia, but everyone in the film seems pretty welcoming. What was the reception like, was there any pushback?
Le Guillou: My concern going over there was, would the Russian government have issues with someone from the U.S. coming over and snooping around in this story? One of the strong theories or elements from the story, from a lot of the Russian people that I spoke to, was that perhaps the Soviet government at the time was responsible or in some way to blame for this event. So obviously going over there I was a little unsure; would this stir up the hornet’s nest, and would I be in trouble in some way? I definitely had that in the back of my mind. That said, in terms of the people I met, the Dyatlov Foundation, and in particular, Yuri Kuntsevich, who was the person I was speaking to — he was incredibly helpful. We even stayed at his house actually for a short time, and he welcomed us in, he introduced us to all the people he knew that surrounded the case, opened up interviews for me, and was really fully open. I mean, I think he, too, was tired of a lot of the internet theories, and so he was really open to the idea of me coming over and trying to tell the true story as much as we know.
Gizmodo: What do you think are the most striking differences between the official report and the actual facts of the case?
Le Guillou: The official report at the time stated that all of the hikers ultimately died of hypothermia and then, strangely, due to “an unknown compelling force.” That’s an incredible thing to put into an official document, and then to close the case. Essentially they were like, “We don’t know what happened, but they died of hypothermia.” That leaves so many questions, and it obviously became the title of this film. But I think in saying that, the investigator at the time, Lev Ivanov, was trying to leave the door open for people to kind of look into this. I think he knew that there was something going on here that he hadn’t gotten to yet, and he later spoke about that after the fall of the Soviet Union; he felt like he had done a disservice to the families by not completing the story. So yeah, there was definitely more to the story, but at the time — and it’s hard for us to say why — but the Soviet government did not want the story to continue or to be looked into anymore.
Gizmodo: We’re debuting a clip along with this interview — the scene where a contemporary forensic expert explains how the hikers’ tent could have been cut from the outside, though the official report said otherwise. Can you set that scene up for us a little bit?
Le Guillou: What’s interesting about that was, in the case files, Lev Ivanov was initially looking for the idea that perhaps the hikers were attacked by other people. That whole line of investigation was dropped when the expert at the time concluded that the tent was cut from the inside. So that implies that the hikers had cut their own way out of the tent and, you know, there was no need to look for any more attackers from that point. A huge element to this investigation was completely dropped at that moment; at no point were they looking to see whether other people were involved. The expert I spoke to in Russia, Natalia Sakharova, has extensively reviewed this case for her own interests. She wasn’t paid for it, she is an ex-policewoman who is now a forensic expert for a private company in Russia. She felt that in the documents, the photos that they included [of the tent] in the expert analysis showed they were looking in the wrong place. She believes not only that the information that they cut their way out of the tent was not proven, she actually believes that it was quite possibly the other way around.
Gizmodo: Earlier you mentioned seeing a mockumentary that followed the “Russian Yeti” theory. What were some of the other wild conspiracy theories you came across?
Le Guillou: There are just so many different conspiracy theories. One of them is that — you know, there were traces of radiation found on two members of the group. One of the wild theories was that actually they were spies and they were trying to escape out of Russia to take sample materials to the Americans. Obviously, in the middle of the Cold War, these sorts of theories would make sense and they would come about. I don’t believe that’s true for a second, and the film does look at the kind of big mystery around this radiation, and uncovered some pretty interesting information as to why that radiation was there — and why it’s kind of a much more straightforward answer.
Gizmodo: Thanks to the diaries and photos left behind, and interviews with friends and acquaintances, you really get a sense of who the hikers were. What was your impression of them and was fleshing them out as people, not just anonymous victims, one of your goals going into the film?
Le Guillou: Yeah, that was a really big element. I really wanted to find out who they were, and I wanted to tell their honest story. Seeing the pseudo-documentary, and seeing so much stuff on the internet where people seemed to know the facts and the ideas — but some of it’s so wrong and so untrue — I wanted to tell the truth in a way to be respectful to their memory. That was important to me. Reading through the diaries and then going on the journey and seeing the same places that they went to — you feel a connection to their story and you just realise, we had our small team and we had the banter and laughs within our small team, and you know they had that with their team. It makes it much easier to relate to them as people who liked to go on adventures. They were going on an amazing, fun adventure, and I don’t think it’s fair to remember them as just this horrible tragedy. I think it’s nice to remember them for who they were, as well.
Gizmodo: The film kind of becomes your own diary as you conduct your investigation. Did you always know you wanted to make it kind of a personal story and have yourself be a character in it?
Le Guillou: Yes and no. I knew that in order to tell this story, I wanted to understand their journey, and the only way to understand their journey was to do it, [and] to allow the audience to understand that journey through my eyes as I was seeing it was probably the best way to do it. It’s my first time being on camera in that way so I always had some reservations, but I think it was important to follow a character going on this journey. And it was an incredible adventure, and I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad I get to bring that to people.
Gizmodo: What was it like making a documentary about a mystery, knowing you might never find out what really happened?
Le Guillou: That’s a big question: why go and try and tell a story that you probably can’t tell the answer to? I think what you can do is look at the more out-there theories and you can start to tick off why they don’t make sense. That’s definitely what I did with this film; I tried to go through and look at all the other theories and to say, “Is there anything to this? Can it make sense?” And as I went through [the list] and [checked] them off for not working out, I was left with a smaller, much narrower path of what possibly happened out there. For me, that’s important because now if anyone says, “I heard it was a Yeti or a UFO!” or “They were American spies!”, I can look at this film and say, “Hey, this stuff doesn’t make sense, and here’s the facts why it doesn’t make sense.”
Gizmodo: What is your personal opinion about what happened? Which I’m sure is a question that everyone asks you…
Le Guillou: Yeah… yeah. There’s also an element that it’s not an easy answer because if you give a straight answer to this question, people will throw up all the other theories and ideas that they’ve heard of on the internet for years. I think that in order to come to an answer you need to understand all of the different elements that perhaps explain why other theories aren’t true. But speaking to everyone, speaking to people [in Russia] but also the experts in the U.S. that I had look at the case, I think there’s a strong consensus that, given how detailed the autopsy reports are, and how wildly unusual the injuries were found on the bodies, and also the spacing of the bodies — they were found at least an hour [hike] away, about a mile away from the tent, probably would have taken an hour to get there… now, there’s been a lot of press lately about an avalanche theory. It’s gained a huge amount of press and people are claiming this has solved the story. But my issue on that is, it doesn’t explain that if they’d received these injuries that were so terrible — in at least two cases those people would not have been able to have walked — how did they hike for an hour away from the tent? There are clear footprints that show the whole group walked from that tent; they weren’t dragged. So the avalanche theory doesn’t make sense.
If you’re ticking off all of these theories, I think for me it comes down to the fact that it’s very likely that other people were involved in this case, and that other people were involved at the location. Who and for why that might be, I think there’s more detail in the film, but again you need to see it in context with the other evidence.
Gizmodo: Do you think we’ll ever know the truth, or is it going to be a mystery that endures?
Le Guillou: I think we’re getting closer to the truth, and I think that’s a good thing, to rule out a lot of the theories that don’t make sense. Will we find the exact answer? I think given the [amount of time that has passed], I think that’s going to be very difficult. And I don’t know that the Russian government, as it stands today, is that interested in finding out the truth. So I don’t know. But there’s a lot of people still looking into this case, as we’ve seen from lots of true crime stories over recent years, sometimes bits of information suddenly pop up. People are still looking, nobody’s giving up on this, and I don’t think this [film] is the last in the story. I think this [film] is kind of one more step along that journey. We’re definitely getting closer, so — who knows?
An Unknown Compelling Force will be released digitally on June 15.