Co Kildare director Laura McGann on capturing unseen world of freediving in The Deepest Breath
Ahead of the release of The Deepest Breath, a Netflix documentary delving into the dangerous world of freediving, Rohit Balaji speaks to acclaimed Irish director Laura McGann and Belgian freediving expert Kristof Coenen about making the film...
THE Deepest Breath, a new Netflix documentary directed by Co Kildare- born Laura McGann, delves into the dangerous daredevil world of freediving which claimed the life of Irish rescue diver Stephen Keenan in 2017.
The documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, focuses on Italian freediving star, Aleessa Zecchini, whom Keenan was assisting when he died.
From the inception of the project, McGann recognised the immense storytelling potential hidden within freediving. The project unfolded when the director discovered the tragic story behind Keenan's death in an Irish Times article.
After beginning her research, she came across an abundance of archival material and personal testimony from passionate individuals around the globe.
"You just don't know what was filmed. Did anyone take a camera out on this day? Did anyone take a photo or video," shares McGann, highlighting the mysterious nature of freediving.
The goal was to showcase the wealth of stories that often go unnoticed by outsiders, as she believes that "the story of freediving is a story worth telling."
"We found such incredible material," McGann exclaims, reflecting on the underwater visuals captured in locations such as Dahaab in Egypt, the Bahamas, and the Caribbean Sea in Mexico.
"It was an adventure to see these places and watch these freedivers work their magic."
The documentary opens with a single, unbroken take of Alessia's daring dive, the camera unwavering in its focus.
McGann, speaking about this truly 'breathtaking' shot, expressed her profound intent: "To truly comprehend their incredible breath-holding endurance, one must experience it in real-time.
"I wanted the audience to grasp the stakes immediately, the intensity that arises when breath is held for such extraordinary lengths. Starting the film this way was our only choice."
McGann's previous foray into the world of offbeat sports came in the form of the documentary Revolutions, which was centered on the unconventional realm of Roller Derby.
Similar to The Deepest Breath, Revolutions followed two individuals, delving into their journeys and exploring the contrasting facets of athletes who participate in a unique sport.
"Through Revolutions, I gained insight into the stark disparity between public perception and the reality of these sports," explains McGann of how her experience influenced her approach to The Deepest Breath.
"It prepared me to authentically portray the world of freedivers, allowing their story to be told from their own perspective rather than an outsider's view."
Regarding the main emotional core of her latest documentary, the film-maker emphasises the unwavering bond between parent and child.
"At the heart of The Deepest Breath lies a celebration of human emotional connections," explains McGann.
"The angle of the parent was a universal theme."
“When Enzo [Zecchini’s father] says that he would have given his life instead of Stephen’s life, it was such a profound thing to say at the time.”
Through the stories of its central figures, viewers witness sacrifices, unyielding support and personal growth.
As McGann explains: "I became a parent while making this film myself, and when he said that, it really stuck with me.”
Kristof Coenen, a close friend of the late Keenan, explains the personal journey of freediving, highlighting the importance of physical and mental preparation.
"Visualisation, picturing your dive step by step... it is so fast that if you don't divide it into steps, it is hard to remember where you went wrong," says the Belgian, who has trained actors on how to freedive for film roles.
Coenen elaborates on what it feels like to freedive, explaining: “It’s so unique. You become a part of the sea. I know it sounds spiritual. The sea swallows you up as a whole and you disappear. You dissolve like a tablet in a glass of water.
"The deeper I fall, the less I exist. The point of consciousness is just enough to bring you back up. But all you wanna do is stay down there.”
While discussing his emotional reaction to the documentary, Coenen confesses, "It was a very emotional, hard watch for me," highlighting the raw authenticity captured on screen.
"In a very perverted way, I almost didn't want the documentary to end, because it felt like [Keenan] was alive as I was watching it".
Further, when talking about the sport’s future, Coenen acknowledges the risks involved, stating: "You can't separate the risks involved: you can only reduce them.
"It's also equally as important for young people getting into the sport not to push themselves too much and know their limits".
As he explains, the tragic loss of Stephen Keenan has pushed the community to further improve safety measures within the freediving community.
“The documentary is a great way to raise awareness about freediving as a sport or even a hobby," he enthuses.
"You don’t have to compete in freediving - you can just go underwater and hold your breath and you’re free diving!"
:: The Deepest Breath will receive a limited cinema release in Ireland on July 14 prior to becoming available on Netflix on July 19.