"It was like finding out there was a group of people who knew how to fly."
For director Laura McGann, that was the experience of discovering freediving, the niche, competitive sport at the center of her latest documentary, The Deepest Breath. The film opens with a continuous take of Italian champion Alessia Zecchini diving underwater for four unbroken minutes with nothing but a rope and the oxygen stored in her lungs. The sequence makes it strikingly clear not how dangerous freediving is, but also the courage and athleticism required to do it in the first place.
"I read about Alessia in The Irish Times, and the first thing that really came across to me was the images of the freedivers holding their breath underwater. They were behaving more like seals and dolphins than people," the Irish-born McGann tells A.frame. "I thought, 'I've never seen this before. I don't know if anybody else has either, and I certainly think it could be amazing to see on the big screen."
The film is also a love story between Zecchini and Irish safety diver Stephen Keenan, who died in a tragic diving accident in 2017. "We put together a document early on in order to find the best way to tell their story," says the filmmaker. "At the end of that, we realized we had a really beautiful story about this connection these two human beings had to the sea and to each other."
Instrumental in helping McGann get a grasp on Zecchini and Keenan's story was a collection of audio interviews that the latter had conducted prior to his death. "There were 13 hours of audio interviews that had been done with Stephen, so I would put on these big, chunky headphones and I would go for a walk and let him talk to me," McGann says. "I could have listened to those interviews for a year. He was a wonderful storyteller, and he had this beautiful, wild curious streak in him."
Keenan's interviews endeared him to McGann, but they also unlocked her vision for The Deepest Breath. "I thought, 'Maybe Stephen can tell his own story.' It doesn’t have to be people talking about someone the audience never hears from. We can tell his story in the present tense, in the moment," she explains. "What I love about documentaries is when they let you be in the room and watch the story unfold on screen in front of your eyes. Thankfully, we had all this footage Stephen had shot himself of his life and his experiences freediving."
McGann wouldn't have to rely solely on Keenan's personal footage, however, as she and her team were able to enlist the help and participation of practically everyone who knew Keenan, including his fellow safety divers, freedivers he'd worked with over the years, and Zecchini herself. "People were more than happy to hop on Zoom and chat with me about Stephen and freediving," McGann shares. "We eventually got to the point where we knew we had everything we could possibly get. After that, it became a matter of filling in certain gaps and shooting new footage in the same style that the archival footage had been shot — with GoPro cameras and freedivers themselves filming."
While The Deepest Breath relies largely on unaltered archival footage, there are certain segments that McGann's crew needed to shoot for themselves, requiring her own brush with freediving. "We had the opportunity to go to some stunning locations with actual freedivers. It was like having a pod of dolphins for a crew," she reflects. "We'd go out to the Caribbean Sea and I'd be on the surface of the water holding onto a noodle while the freedivers would pop down with cameras and get the shots we needed. We had cinematographers and safety divers there at all times; it was a really controlled, lovely environment."
These experiences ultimately better helped McGann understand how Zecchini and Keenan's professional relationship informed their personal, tragically short-lived romance. "There's something that happens between a freediver and their safety diver. Even if they're strangers to each other, the freediver is always putting their life in the other's hands. It’s the ultimate trust exercise," McGann explains. "That has created this amazing closeness between all these people who compete and dive together. It's also been the start of some really beautiful relationships."
As extreme as the sport at hand is, the heart of The Deepest Breath was that relationship. McGann remembers a particular piece of footage that she had a strong emotional reaction to, though it wouldn't make the final cut of the documentary. "There is one piece of footage that made me cry the first time I watched it," she says. "Stephen and Alessia were at a party, and she was in the middle of a group of people just chatting and having a lovely time. He was standing on his own, away from everybody else, having a beer and looking in. The camera panned from her to him and you could see him get very shy, because he realized he"d been caught looking over at this other group of people — and Alessia in the middle of it."
"Maybe I was projecting, but I just felt that there was something there," McGann sighs. In the end, it always came back to Stephen and Alessia, and what depths existed below the surface.
By Alex Welch