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Diving Into The Unknown: A visceral survival against the odds documentary

May 12, 2016 Film & TV

I wanted to see Diving Into The Unknown for the same core reason I wanted to see Touching The Void, back in 2003. People pushing themselves to the limit, risking their lives to go places I’ll never go. Survival against the odds. There are a couple of key differences worth mentioning. First, that survival thing: Diving Into The Unknown starts with two deaths.

Or rather, it starts just before two deaths. Film-maker Juan Reina was already involved with a team of Finnish divers, planning to document their attempt on a new world record for the longest cave dive, when their exploration of a deep cave system in Norway went badly wrong. The film was put on hold while the survivors regrouped. But after the Norwegian police declared that recovering the bodies was too dangerous to be attempted, and ruled further dives in the caves illegal, the divers invited Reina back. They were going to get their friends’ bodies out so the families could bury them properly. Would Reina like to make this attempt the subject of his film?

So there’s the second key point of difference with Touching The Void. The latter is a dramatic reenactment. This is a documentary filmed largely inside an underwater cave system, in real time. There are drawbacks to this. The caves are not spacious. In places they are so very much not spacious that it’s a wonder divers can get through them, never mind film in them; and in fact it was in one of these places that the two men became trapped and died. Reina does what he can with diagrams to map the caves out for us and maintain a clear sense of which divers are where at any given time, but the underwater footage is often difficult to parse.

It’s also visceral and occasionally scary. I would not suggest this as good viewing material for anyone with more than mild claustrophobia.

I would not suggest this as good viewing material for anyone with more than mild claustrophobia.

The lack of clarity sometimes extends to the narration. It took me a little while to work out that two men had died in the accident, not one; this is because both men happen to have the same first name. There were also moments where I could have used more incisive interviewing of the divers. One tells us, when the decision to close the caves first comes down from the authorities, that there is no point thinking about his lost friends’ bodies; it’s the memories of having known them that matter. Thirty seconds later the same man is back on screen announcing that the bodies must be recovered, that there is simply no choice. It’s not that this transition is so implausible, but a couple of questions devoted to how and why he changed his mind wouldn’t have been out of place.

Diving Into the Unknown from Doc Edge on Vimeo.

These are irritations, but the film is too powerful to be derailed by them. Anyone who saw the 2012 Thomas Vinterberg/Mads Mikkelsen film The Hunt may remember the close fellowship among the group of Danish men who go hunting together in the opening scene: a brotherhood of male competence from which it’s a terrible thing, later in the film, for one of the men to be excluded. That scene was in my mind all through Diving Into The Unknown, because this real life group of Scandinavian men clearly have a very similar ethos. If there’s nothing left you can do for two of your friends but recover their bodies so their families can farewell them, then you do that. If it means breaking the law and risking your life, you sit down and you make very careful plans, and you do what it takes. Though this makes it sound simpler than it is: for several of the men, diving back to the scene of the accident is a very challenging thing to contemplate, even before they start discussing what state the bodies may be in.

I kept thinking of Pike River. “It matters, having a grave to visit”, one of the men says.

Sunday May 22, 10am, Q Theatre and Saturday May 28, 4pm, Q Theatre. Book tickets.


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