There are surprisingly few decent films or documentaries about scuba diving. I suspect that moviemakers and audiences struggle to get too excited about an activity in which everyone moves fairly slowly, cannot speak, and where when things go wrong they tend to be within the body or the equipment and not particularly visually exciting. It’s a shame though, because any reader of Shadow Divers, or The Last Dive knows how exciting some diving can be, particularly technical diving with an interesting objective. It just needs a creative film or documentary maker to see the potential.
Anyway, one such documentary has now come out of Finland in the form of ‘Diving into the Unknown’.
The documentary follows a group of technical cave divers and their efforts, despite being officially banned from doing so, to retrieve the body of two of their friends from a deep, underwater cave system. They died there following an attempt to do what would by most standards be an extremely risky and technical dive – navigating through a lengthy cave system at depths of up to 110 metres. As the opening voiceover discusses, though, while the dive might have been risky none of them had a death wish and indeed it becomes apparent that they are all thoughtful, experienced and professional. Two are firemen and rescue divers and one is a professional cave diver. All have serious jobs, but also dive for pleasure and and the pleasure of being part of a group and it is clear that the death of two of their friends right in front of their eyes has had a profound and shattering impact.
Visually, much of the documentary is beautifully filmed. In some early shots the clarity of the water, the narrowness of the caves, and some expert camerawork removes almost all of the blueish tinge I see on my own underwater footage and therefore the awareness of any water being there at all. This gives the impression that the divers are simply gently floating through the air in darkened caves, and at times I found the visuals so breathtaking that it was hard to focus on the subtitles.
On a human level, the story is tragic and poignant, and gives a real insight into the character and personalities of the men left behind. In one gut-wrenching scene they sit around and discuss the practicalities of recovering the bodies; rigor mortis, decomposition, body bags, and so on. If you listened only to their voices (allowing for the fact that I don’t understand the language, of course) you might think they were calm and emotionless, but every face showed a mixture of pain and resolve.
As the rescue progresses, and we follow the GoPro-equipped divers back into the cave, the early beautiful shots are replaced by terrifying, claustrophobic footage of desperately narrow gaps and rock ceilings mere milimetres above our heads. As this is frequently accompanied by an on-screen depth gauge showing the divers at 50, 60, 100 and ultimately as much as 110 metres, it goes some way to getting across just how dangerous and potentially panic-inducing the diving is.
If the film has a flaw it is that I was curious to know more about how the original dive was planned and how it was intended to work from a technical dive-planning point of view. To me this wasn’t entirely clear and, partly as a result, nor was the cause or circumstances surrounding the accident. Perhaps in part this is because the cause wasn’t clear to the divers themselves either, indeed one admitted that he had almost no recollection of the event. However I felt that because we moved so quickly through the set-up, the original plan for the dive and the accident taking place (all this essentially happens in the first 10 minutes of the film) it perhaps lost some of the emotional impact that it might otherwise have had. On the other hand, choosing to focus more on the recovery than on the accident itself was I suspect a deliberate creative choice and not an unreasonable one.
The film doesn’t go much into the details of technical diving, and perhaps a complete non-diver might not even fully appreciate how challenging a dive of this kind is. That said, I think anyone can imagine being 110 metres underwater, deep inside a narrow cave, in near-freezing water, so maybe no real diving knowledge is required.
The film opens and closes with some of the same audio of one of the divers talking about how he struggles to explain why he chooses to venture into places that are so hostile to humans. The film never answers this, or tries to, and as an audience we are left to ponder that characteristic that drives some people, and particularly some divers, to keep attempting more and more difficult and dangerous ventures.
This is a fascinating film for non-divers and divers alike. The very real human drama combined with beautiful underwater footage and film of technical divers working at the very limit of what is possible make it utterly compelling and worthy of several viewings. I highly recommend it.