Tuesday, July 23, 2024

‘The Deepest Breath’: What You Need To Know About The Sundance Freediving Documentary


Freediving is usually perceived as an unusual sport.

The structure of international competitions and the athletes who attend them are often misunderstood. The disparate rules and the unique protocols of overlapping governing agencies are seemingly inexplicable. All are compounded further by confusion & misinterpretation promulgated by media reporters or journalists who tend to be lazy and don’t do their homework.

These slothful hacks usually proffer inaccurate descriptions of what is happening with a freediver’s physiology during a dive, misinform an unknowing public about what motivated an athlete’s choices, or jump to all the wrong conclusions after an incident at a competitive event.

I know this is starting to sound like a rant (my apologies), but it is critical to the framework and my mindset going into the world premiere of a documentary film called “The Deepest Breath.”

The Deepest Breath premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival
The Deepest Breath premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival

Full disclosure – not only am I slightly cranky about how, historically, no one ever (especially media pundits) gets the story straight on our beloved freediving endeavors. From the athletes who excel at breath-hold or on the differences between varying disciplines, but I am also perturbed that rarely does anyone outside of the community recognize that freediving is both art & science and that there’s an alchemical mixture of strength, grace, and surrender when anyone is doing it right.

And worst of all, they constantly refer to it as an extreme sport.

However, the data & statistics of sanctioned competitions don’t support this supposition relative to all the other “extreme sports” in this world and or simply driving a car, for that matter.

But I will relinquish my growing desire to harangue the hacks and instead laud the deft storytelling techniques of filmmaker Laura McGann.

Laura McGann is a cinematographer and director from Ireland whose previous work includes projects such as Revolutions (a documentary that chronicles the trials and tribulations of the roller derby scene in Ireland) and episodic TV series like Stop Search Seize.

When McGann first heard about the heroic efforts of her fellow Irish countryman Stephen Keenan she knew nothing about freediving. A cold-water swimmer herself, McGann’s curiosity was piqued after reading about Stephen in the local news.

Laura began to dig deeper and found herself drawn into (and inspired by) the beautiful photographic work of Daan Verhoeven. Slowly but surely, an underwater world filled her mind and beckoned to her with rich and complex stories to be told, and thus started her journey to create “The Deepest Breath.”

Laura McGann and Stephen's father (Peter Keenan) at the World Premiere (photo courtesy of Francesca Koe)
Laura McGann and Stephen’s father (Peter Keenan) at the world premiere at Sundance (photo courtesy of Francesca Koe)

As a disclosure, I am one of many voices narrating McGann’s film (having been on the Vertical Blue team for over a decade as a media officer and commentator), alongside other narration from freediving greats such as world champions Alexey Molchanov and William Trubridge.

The viewer is taken on two journeys as the parallel stories of the dual protagonists (Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan) are revealed. Fostering a sense of stewardship, McGann artfully weaves the doting perspective of the father of an ambition-driven young Italian athlete and the restrained remorse of the father of a purpose-driven Irish adventurer into an authentic tapestry of biography.

Deploying uncanny archival footage in tandem with the thoughtful insights from both fathers, McGann achieves a sense of joy and honor to buoy the audience along as we learn about the hopes and dreams of Alessia and Stephen.

I admire McGann’s efforts most because she handles everything with judicious care: the subject matter, the interviewees, and their personal histories. Belying the typical style of a documentary, McGann artfully matches moment for moment and surfaces powerful arcs in both Stephen’s story and Alessia’s while simultaneously luring the viewer in with their aspirations and challenges.

The most important thing you need to know about this film is that it is not about freediving but miraculously gets the freediving angle right. It is a film about family, trust and life choices.

Thank goodness McGann satiates my heart’s yearning for the facts and technical information to be delivered correctly! (I mean, when 60 Minutes got it wrong in 2021, I was apoplectic!)

Triumph! Alessia + Stephen (photo courtesy of Daan Verhoeven)
Triumph! Alessia + Stephen (photo courtesy of Daan Verhoeven)

One of the most influential aspects McGann insisted upon (big streamer Netflix bought the film and will be distributing it online later this summer) is an opening shot of Alessia on a freediving record attempt that lasts well over three minutes.

Alessia’s hypnotic descent into Dean’s Blue Hole is punctuated by a rhythmic human heartbeat that makes the viewer want to hold their breath the entire time. This is the best use of footage captured by the Diveye technology to date and underscores the super-human nature of what deep freedivers like Alessia are doing.

The Deepest Breath is rife with desire, loss, hope, and for me… sorrow; the images and memories of other friends lost underscore the notion that nothing is promised, so we must hug, love, and celebrate the ones we hold dear every single day that we can.

There is no suspense for the freediving community as to what will happen in the end, yet McGann skillfully kept me at the edge of my seat in the unveiling of this tapestry. Rounding out the production is gorgeous editing and a stunning original score that adds to the riveting nature of the film.

There is one continuity blip that only a handful of people will notice (I told the director), and as a very small aside of my own personal opinion, I think there is an over-reliance on a perceived ‘romance’ when there is so much love in grander and more generous forms, proliferated throughout Alessia’s and Stephen’s lives.

A kiss for the best coach! Alessia celebrates Stephen in 2017 at Vertical Blue (photo courtesy of Francesca Koe)
A kiss for the best coach! Alessia celebrates Stephen in 2017 at Vertical Blue (photo courtesy of Francesca Koe)

What comes across clearly in the film and on all accounts is how much Stephen was loved & cherished and the void generated by his absence. Alessia’s myriad achievements speak to her sheer tenacity and fortitude. The missed interventions (could have, should have, would have) leave one palpably longing, and the serendipitous intersections offer a reminder that it takes a village and what a privilege and a wonder it is to be a part of this freediving family.

During the Q&A at the film festival McGann remarked how remarkable it was to hear from so many people who had been positively impacted or touched by Stephen Keenan. She regaled that of the dozens and dozens of people she interviewed, there were always still so many more who could have shared endless, moving stories and who valued Stephen as kin.

I suggest that everyone finds the time to watch this film (that ultimately celebrates our friend) when it becomes available on Netflix later this year.

Francesca Koe
Francesca Koehttps://www.deeperblue.com/
An active ocean advocate, VP of U.S. Freediving, a multi-agency dive instructor, PFI Safety Supervisor and AIDA judge, Francesca also serves as the Editor-At-Large here at DeeperBlue.com. You can usually find Francesca diving in the kelp, hanging out at the Farallones with sharky friends, or trying to improve upon her own PB's.