Ten, twenty, and down to nearly eighty feet underwater, freediver Maria Teresa Solomons guides us through her “vagabond experience” in the new short film The Mammalian Reflex. Directed by Flavia Martinez, the 27-minute documentary takes viewers down into the blue through a series of intimate, underwater and close-up shots that capture Solomons’s persona, such as goggles, neck weights, a faded Buddha tattoo, clay prints of her son’s hand.
It starts with Solomons explaining that she began to freedive upon meeting her ex-husband in India and immediately begins to show us how she trains her lungs to endure the long stretches of time in the sea. First in the intimates of her bedroom as she times herself and shows us how her diaphragm moves while she holds her breath, and then training in a swimming pool as she sinks herself to the bottom for periods of time and swims away into complete disappearance. These shots of Solomon underwater are often long and nearly silent, an approach made consciously to bring the viewer closer to the freediver’s experience.
“I interviewed Maria Teresa a lot both on and off-camera, and the decisions we made on how we wanted to approach this documentary visually is based on her experiences underwater,” said Martinez. “[She says] that when she’s underwater, it’s like the outside world doesn’t exist, so I really tried to give the viewers that feeling with a lot of silence and long takes underwater so people could feel the experience as Maria Teresa describes it to be.”
Solomons’s relationship with free diving goes way deeper than just the sport of it, unlike many professionals that Martinez interviewed in preparation for the film, Solomons connects to it on a very personal and spiritual level as well. The discipline, the drive, the mystery of the unknown… it takes a rare type of person to run into the encompassing arms of the ocean and away from the comforts of traditional ways of living with a sun-kissed smile and a pure heart. “To survive, I had to go up and leave,” she says in the documentary and speaks about the vagabond existence Solomons felt she had to lead.
Capturing her story via a hand-held camera was a deliberate move for Martinez and the director of photography, Alejandro Chavez, who both believe that the camera should imitate Solomons’s free spirit. “I tried to reflect the way Maria Teresa sees life and her free, spontaneous and unpredictable [personality].” And so she does.
Whether it be on land or in the ocean, the spirit of Solomon can be felt every second of the way. Speaking of the journeys of a failed marriage, the joys of motherhood, the calling of the sea, she’s more transparent than the waters she dives into. However, her love for freediving is not without its hurdles.
She shares the story of a competition several years ago that lead her away from freediving competitively for years. During a dive, one of her eardrums popped, at which point she decided to distance herself from competitions for a while. She also speaks of Natalia Molchanova, the champion freediver who tragically disappeared in 2015 while teaching the sport in Ibiza’s blue waters. But like waves crashing onto the sands of a beach, Solomons always comes back to her underwater home.
You can watch the trailer below. The mammalian reflex is currently circulating through festivals but will be available in digital platforms soon