The Deepest Breath: 'Nerve-shredding’ documentary explores the perils of liberation

  • By Helen Bushby
  • Entertainment reporter from Sheffield Documentary Festival

image source, Netflix 2023

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The film shows freedivers attempting Egypt’s infamous Blue Hole dive

Holding your breath is something most of us do to stave off hiccups, so diving more than 100 meters into the ocean, without breathing, can be the stuff of nightmares.

The Deepest Breath is a documentary exploring just this – the sport of freediving.

It gives viewers a close-up view of swimmers competing against each other as they descend into the ocean in one breath.

„It’s that simple. A deep-dive hit,” says the film’s trailer. „You have to swim the length of a 70-story building.”

But it adds ominously: „Liberation is a serious game — and serious games can have serious consequences.”

The most dangerous part of the dive is when the swimmer returns to the surface, a few meters away from the fresh air, when they succumb to what’s called „shallow water blackout.”

image source, Netflix © 2023

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Climbing is more dangerous than descending in freediving

Watching swimmers black out and being pulled from the water by safety divers, who sometimes require mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, is disturbing.

The safety diver meets the swimmer as they ascend, keeping a close eye on them and prompting them to pull them up if they begin to lose consciousness.

image source, Netflix © 2023

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As freedivers get into flight, safety is critical to divers survival

Laura McCann, director of The Deepest Breath, became „hooked” on making the film after a news story about Irish freediver Stephen Keenan piqued her interest.

„I didn’t know anything about freediving. I love the ocean and swim all year round,” McCann says at the Sheffield Documentary Festival in June.

„I started looking online and saw beautiful videos and short films about freedivers and realized something I hadn’t realized before.”

McCann wanted to explore how the intrepid Keenan fell in love with diving while living in Tahab, Egypt. He became an instructor and lifeguard – one of the most experienced divers to help during freediving competitions.

image source, Netflix © 2023

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Stephen Keenan and Alessia Cecchini: The film shows how their relationship developed through their diving romance.

How she worked with Italian freediver Alessia Cecchini in her quest to become a world champion, making her childhood dream come true.

Their relationship deepens throughout the film, taking the viewer on an emotional journey.

McCann also talks about what it’s like to watch freediving footage.

While watching someone calmly descend into the depths of the ocean is undeniably beautiful, watching the film will give you a better idea of ​​your breathing ability.

McCann says the same thing happened to him.

„I counted how many times I had to breathe out and inhale.”

image source, Deep breath

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Laura McCann: Freediving footage „made me realize something I hadn’t realized before”

The director’s research for his film began under lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic.

„I started talking to people and finding out more about Stephen and Alessia,” she says, expressing her surprise when she realized she lived near Stephen’s dad Peter in Ireland.

Peter gave 14 hours of audio interviews with his son, which McCann was able to listen to and use for the film.

„I fell in love with Steven and gradually got to know Alessia more, and it was an instant connection I felt to the story,” McCann explains.

image source, Netflix © 2023

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Alessia Zecchini and Stephen Keenan are seen celebrating after her diving victories

The film uses actual footage and some reconstruction to tell the story of Zecchini and Keenan as they create his attempt to set a new world record for freedom.

Zecchini must master her mind and her body, learning to meditate and quiet her thoughts before she enters the water.

We also see them in the infamous Blue Hole of Tahab in Egypt, a 25m-long, terrifying-looking tunnel 55m below the Red Sea. This is Nicknamed „Divers Grave”..

image source, Netflix © 2023

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Stephen Keenan and Alessia Cecchini can be seen working on his technique

To film someone freediving, he explains, the cameraman must also be a freediver, „get through their paces,” and film the entire dive.

“It was real, it was raw, so I had footage shot on a GoPro camera in 4K on an iPhone,” he says.

“You won’t [usually] Use it, but it [recorded] moment – so you enter it.”

image source, Netflix © 2023

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Alessia Zecchini’s love for water is evident in the film

McCann told the BBC that sometimes it was hard to be alone, given how close she felt to her subjects.

„You’re definitely not lonely, you fall in love with the story, the people in it,” she says. „But it’s important to recognize it, and you have a role to play here — to tell the story better.”

He adds that the documentary does not reveal any negative aspects of the behavior of its participants.

„Alessia doesn’t always behave wonderfully…it was a little awkward, but…she saw it and accepted it.”

Producer Sarah Thompson adds: „It’s a credit to Laura that she has such close relationships with the people you see and is able to sit them down for interviews.”

She says they also held special screenings with the independent community to „give them a chance to see it together.”

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Freediver Adam Truska reveals the training and relaxation exercises needed to hold your breath for more than six minutes.

The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and has been well received.

Fionnuala Halligan of Screen Daily wrote Back in March: „Deep Breath is a nerve-wracking experience. McCann’s brilliant assemblage captures the liquid danger of the murky depths….The awards are sure to come.

„Technically, it’s flawless. Although The Deepest Breath is set to release on Netflix later this year, it’s one of the ultimate big-screen experiences worth seeking out if you get the chance.”

Added Guy Lodge from Variety: „The world can probably be divided into two camps: those who watch The Deepest Breath, a heartwarming documentary about the extreme sport of freediving, and those who understand the perilous pull of the Big Blue and who it might be. It’s the scariest undersea nightmare since jazz.”

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Daniel Feinberg at The Hollywood Reporter He called the film „a heart-stopping descent into a shallow frenzy” and added: „To put it bluntly, the film is a breath-taking documentary, with eye-popping visuals, thrilling contests and an elegantly presented love story.”

McCann hopes people who watch it will engage „with the bravery of Alessia and Stephen… and the beautiful passion they’ve maintained in their adult lives, in a way you don’t often see.”

He adds: „They followed their gut, even if it wasn’t expected of them – you never know where it will take you.”

The Deepest Breath was released on July 14 at the Curzon Camden Theater in London for a week and on July 19 on Netflix in 155 countries.

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