Imagine sneaking into a building site in the dead of night, climbing to the top of a skyscraper and throwing yourself into the darkness with just a skydiving suit, helmet and parachute for protection.

Picture yourself on the edge of a frightening cliff face, then try and feel the rush that hits you when you leap off into the unknown and plummet towards the ground with just a parachute to save you metres before you hit the ground.

Imagining these terrifying circumstances is likely easy for you, as videos of extreme sports have become so commonplace on social media – it’s easy to forget BASE jumping was once a niche pastime practiced by the daring few and outlawed by authorities around the world. The likes of Red Bull have blazed a worldwide trail with daredevil jump stunts perfect for the YouTube and GoPro generation, but they owe a huge debt to an American couple who broke new ground in the sport during the 1970s and 80s.

A new documentary, Sunshine Superman, sheds light on the extraordinary lives of this couple, Carl and Jean Boenish.

Directed by American visual artist Marah Strauch, who became fascinated by the story of this couple after discovering footage of Carl in the belongings of her late skydiving uncle, the documentary looks at the Boenish’s experiments with freefall cinematography and BASE jumping.

The film highlights plenty of run-ins with the law when Carl and his friends began jumping, whether off of manmade structures or natural formations. But it’s the love story between Carl and his wife Jean that forms the backbone of this story. Jean overcame female stereotypes to BASE jump with Carl and become an integral part of his journey that ended in his death at the Troll Wall in Norway.

I spoke with the director Marah and Jean Boenish herself to find out more about the genesis behind this fascinating documentary, the legacy that Carl left behind and what Jean has done to keep it alive.

MATTHEW OGBORN: Jean, a lot of extreme sports today seem to be about adrenaline junkies trying to outdo each other. What drove you and Carl to do the things you did?

JEAN BOENISH: We found what we were seeking through the serenity. It really had nothing to do with adrenaline. It started with the purity of curiosity and the peacefulness of being good independent thinkers uniting with their friends to joyfully explore and pierce through artificial limitations.

MO: There is a childlike feel to how you and Carl lived your life together that shone through in every frame of this film.

JB: We were teasing out our natural compassion that we had when we were children. As adults, we are trying to reach back out of our distractions and forward at the same time. Life is like a puzzle. Each voyage is something that has to be approached intelligently. It’s instinct, it’s intuition, it’s discernment. It takes a lifetime of patience to learn this discernment. When you have learned, you have achieved the plateau.

We never called it extreme sport. There were people who were just very good skydivers and were seeking the next level of something to try. It was childlike in its sense of curiosity. We have to break through the conditioning.

MO: How do you feel about how much influence corporate culture has on the sport today?

JB: You do have to watch out for corruption when things become popular. The number one thing now is the corruption of money and ego. Believing wrongly that something is exclusive, not inclusive. BASE jumping was pursued to be inclusive. We shared everything freely. We would not have had such joy if it was not intended to be freely shared.

Carl’s life was like a poem and he found his cadence in that poem through film. Marah found her poetry continuing through the cadence of this film. The beauty and love that was really there. It is captured very strongly and totally full of honest viewpoints.

I can probably count on one hand the times Carl jumped without a camera. Being married into that purpose myself, it was pretty much the same. We felt naked without our cameras.

MO: Did you feel like a pioneer at the time?

JB: There was never any breakdown of gender or race, while Carl and I were never put on a pedestal. That is the architecture of the modern generation built on a hierarchical level.

When somebody pioneers something, they become a hub of knowledge and that is sought out. Other people would come with their information and it was dumped in our hub and people would call us about the information they were seeking. We didn’t have fans, we simply had a community.

MO: What does it feel like to land after these jumps?

JB: Whenever a first-time jumper lands on the ground, they get this big-eyed look – the wondrous joy and glee of experiencing and learning something new.

MO: Marah, the documentary has a lovely idyllic feel to it, almost dreamlike. Is that what you were shooting for originally?

MARAH STRAUCH: I wanted it to feel very open and give a lot of room for the viewer. I had a lot of creative freedom making this and any pressure was my own.

MO: There is very little personal footage of Carl and Jean outside of their jumps. Did that prove difficult in conveying the close bond they shared?

MS: Carl was amazing at shooting BASE jumping and these big action sequences, but he didn’t shoot that much personal stuff.

Their wedding footage was great, however it was really challenging to find those moments of personal stuff between them. I don’t think either one of them was sentimental.

MO: Even though Jean didn’t want the limelight, she ended up being a female pioneer in a world mostly occupied by men. How do you see her role in that era?

MS: There wasn’t a feminist agenda. It was just people jumping off stuff. You don’t have to have a lot of physical prowess. It’s more about being clear of mind, careful with your equipment and knowing what you’re doing. Jean was really good at what she did.

Sunshine Superman is released on DVD and Digital Download on 28 September

Words by Matthew Ogborn

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