(Los Angeles) In the opening minutes of The Deepest Breath, an amphibious drone follows diver Alessia Zecchini as she descends a hundred feet into the murky depths of the ocean, then ascends – all in the space of a single breath.
The three-and-a-half-minute, throbbing and claustrophobic sequence is as hard to watch as it is hypnotic.
As Alessia Zecchini climbs back up, her body begins to convulse. Rescue divers must bring her to the surface and resuscitate her.
The images may be shocking, but fainting due to lack of oxygen is common among free divers, athletes of an extreme sport that involves diving as deep as possible without any breathing aids.
“You can watch all the videos in the world and still not be ready to see a human being just pass out, like that,” says Laura McGann, the director of the documentary released Wednesday on the Netflix platform around the world.
“It’s scary to see. »
In her film, made up of archival footage, interviews and some reconstructions, Laura McGann tries to understand what drives these men and women to risk their lives again and again and to push the limits of human endurance to the search for new records.
“To see a human being behaving like a seal or a dolphin in the water, without an oxygen tank, was like learning that there was a group of people, somewhere in the world, who could steal,” she told AFP.
The documentary focuses on the relationship between diver Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan, a young Irishman who becomes one of the safety specialists in the sport.
Free divers, if they do not actively seek death, do not seem to fear it. Opening The Deepest Breath, Alessia Zecchini happily explains that she doesn’t even think about it.
But the spectator quickly understands that a tragedy has happened.
Neither the diver nor Stephen Keenan give interviews for the film, leaving the question of their fate hanging in the balance for nearly the entirety of the feature – except for a quick internet search.
This narration was reproached to the director during the first returns on the occasion of the Sundance film festival in January.
But Laura McGann had “early” decided that her documentary would stay “in the moment” with her characters throughout their odyssey.
Death “would always be near the end of the film”.
“The Deepest Breath is the latest in a series of recent documentaries that explore dangerous obsessions through the lens of a love story.
Nominated for an Oscar last year, Fire of Love told the risky daily life of the couple of French volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft.
And in 2019, Free Solo followed climber Alex Honnold as he climbed El Capitan without a belay system and showed his terrified girlfriend.
For Laura McGann, the relationship between Zecchini and Keenan was one of “yin and yang”, as if they were “each other’s missing piece”, even before they met as small-business celebrities. free diving.
This sport, as much cerebral as physical, requires a personality of a very particular type, which not only remains calm, but appreciates being at 100 m depth, where one can no longer be rescued.
“What the snorkeler feels is almost the opposite of what those who watch the documentary feel,” explained Laura McGann.
While onlookers can find themselves catching their breath just by looking, the divers evoke “a serene, calm, peaceful silence” as they quiet their minds and reduce their heart rate to “that of a Tibetan monk”.
“It’s almost a meditative state,” describes Laura McGann.
But you have to keep a bit of the subconscious focused on what you’re doing, enough to remember to go back up.