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'The Deepest Breath' director on her new documentary about free diving

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The new documentary "The Deepest Breath" introduces viewers to the world of free diving.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE DEEPEST BREATH")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Alessia Zecchini, Italy, 4-minute world record attempt.

DETROW: The film follows Italian freediver Alessia Zecchini as she attempts to break record after record. Each time, she dives deep down into the depths of the ocean after taking one single breath. We heard a breathe in just a moment ago, and we are playing the sound of that dive, which happens early in the movie, underneath this entire introduction. Divers like Zecchini don't use oxygen equipment. Deep under the water, they only rely on a rope and a safety team close to the surface waiting to help the diver if something goes wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE DEEPEST BREATH")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What would you like to accomplish in the next few months?

ALESSIA ZECCHINI: I would like to go deeper. I would like to do the world record.

DETROW: That world record was 101 meters under the surface. As she tries to go deeper, Zecchini meets Irish safety diver Stephen Keenan. And from the moment the documentary begins, it makes it clear that death is always lurking around the corner in the sport. And it's clear early on that at some point, something will go wrong for either Zecchini or Keenan. The director, Lauren McGann, says she relied mostly on archival footage from both divers to tell their story.

LAURA MCGANN: I thought, in order to stay in the moment with Stephen and Alessia, and on their journey with them, I need to treat them both in the same way. So it all depended on all of that archive existing to be able to tell the story the way we did, which was, you know, it was chronological. You don't know anything that the people on the screen don't know.

DETROW: And by the way, yes, that first dive scene is still playing. Zecchini is still holding her breath and diving. I talked to McGann earlier this week, and she said she was an outsider at first. She started learning about the sport when she Googled it.

MCGANN: I was met by these images of, like, human beings behaving more like seals and dolphins in the sea, seemingly without the urge to breathe. And it was just like nothing I'd ever seen before. And it very much was one of those cases where, on that evening, I got so engrossed in it that hours passed. And I looked up, and it was dark, you know, like where you just don't notice anything else. It was like finding out that there was a group of people somewhere in the world and - that could fly. And they had been flying, you know, for a number of years, and here's a whole lot of videos of them doing it. That's kind of what Day 1 was like for me on this project.

DETROW: But at the same time, it's incredibly dangerous. And from the first 5 minutes of this film, you are making it clear to everybody watching that death is always lurking, and the smallest mistake can kill you. You also spent a lot of time with both Stephen and Alessia's fathers, talking to them, you know, at some points, watching dive attempts with them. What did you learn about the toll that freediving can take on the families of the people who do it?

MCGANN: Yeah. It's - that was my ultimate question, going to both Peter and Enzo, Alessia and Stephen's parents, fathers, was to try and figure - more so than, why you do the freedivers do it, but how do the parents live with it? And in their different ways, both are learning or have learned how to live with it. Peter said, like, he was always expecting the call. He knew that someday the phone would probably ring and it wouldn't be good news. Whereas Enzo, I think Alessia maybe doesn't really tell him exactly what her plans are before she does them to protect him. And he would probably - you know, he has said that he would prefer if she would hang up her boots and try something else, but he also respects that this is who she is.

DETROW: I want to talk for a few moments about how you put this film together, because I think we were - everyone who watched this at NPR for this segment was just struck by how stunning the visuals were and how comprehensive the visuals were. And I just assumed that you had been actively working on this film at the time and that you were there shooting every single moment, but that wasn't actually the case. How did you gather all of this amazing footage, going back in time to tell the story?

MCGANN: We knew what the story was going to be. And we said, write what exists. And we were really committed to telling the best version of this story. And we knew that it had been really well documented, like, as a sport. And we knew, over the years, we were getting dribs and drabs. And we thought, it's possible that we could do this. I think the fact that it was COVID may - lockdown and things may have helped because people were at home. So when we would get in touch with, you know, for example, there was one scene where we only had one photo. And we said, is that person in the background, are they holding a camera? And then we'd ask such and such and they'd say, yeah, that's Stefano (ph). He actually did have a camera around a good bit. So we get - we were like, right, where is Stefano? Get in touch with Stefano.

DETROW: It's like detective work.

MCGANN: Total - it was like pulling little threads, hundreds of them. And Stefano would be at home usually, because a lot of the people in this film, like, they're hopping around the world and it's hard to pin them down. Well, because everyone was at home and they, you know, maybe had a bit of time on their hands, they had - they went up into the attic. They went through the old hard drive. They found the stuff and they sent it to us.

DETROW: What did you learn about this? Because it feels like even more than a subculture, you know, this is just a global community. Everyone clearly knows each other very well. They all do this extreme thing together. That creates a very specific kind of bonding that you can't replicate in much other circumstances. You found yourself in this world for several years doing this project. What did you learn about it?

MCGANN: A lot. An awful lot. And I'll give you two answers, right? One is the physiological things that happen in your body when you dive, right? There's one thing that really stood out to me, and it's a reflex called the mammalian dive reflex. It's when you go - when you dive deep, your heart rate lowers, and your blood shunts to your organs, to your major organs, protecting them and also conserving oxygen. And that's something that's also seen in seals and dolphins, other mammals. It's less so in humans, but it is there. You know, it's only when you put yourself in a position that you discover what you're capable of. And this is something that freedivers discovered they were capable of. And I just think it's fascinating.

The second thing is more of a personal thing, where - with safety divers and freedivers, the athlete puts their life in the safety divers' hands. They're saying, if anything happens to me, you're going to bring me back up to air, to life, to my family, to the sand. And the safety diver is saying that's what I'm going to do. And the person goes and does their dive, and they come back up, and maybe they need assistance or maybe they don't. But the act of taking that risk with that person, it's like the ultimate trust exercise. And I think that's what you see in the community because people are doing safety for each other, you know, swapping over and being each other's buddy. And it does create a certain kind of utopian kind of vibe. Yeah, it's super. It's super nice.

DETROW: That was Laura McGann, director of the documentary "The Deepest Breath," which is out now on Netflix. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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