A new film about ice freediving forgoes adventure to tell the story of an elite ice freediver’s battle with trauma

By Angela Heathcote 10 June 2020
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Descent examines the psychological side of well-known ice freediver Kiki Bosch’s story.

WARNING: Contains references to sexual assault and trauma.

Filmmaker Nays Baghai’s new documentary feature film Descent, premiering at the Sydney Film Festival this week, tells the story of professional ice freediver Kiki Bosch, who initiated herself into the dangerous sport after a sexual assault. 

Descent follows Kiki across the globe, pushing her physical and psychological limits to the tipping point. Featuring immaculate underwater scenes shot in the icy waters of Greenland, Iceland, Finland, New Zealand and Australia, Descent is an insight into a misunderstood sport.

Australian Geographic sat down with Nays to chat about depicting the psychological side of extreme sports.

Angela Heathcote: Having seen a lot of adventure films that typically focus on an extreme sports person’s pursuit of a particular world record or achievement, I found Descent to be far more interesting because it gave more weight to Kiki’s psychological achievements. What inspired you to go down that path?

Nays Baghai: It really all started when I got into underwater cinematography at age 18, and I started doing a lot of deeper, colder, murkier dives both on scuba and freediving. A lot of my non-diver friends began asking me, “Why do you do such a dangerous thing?”, and the psychological weight of that question really struck a chord with me. The growing network of tech divers, freedivers and shark divers I was building – many of whom dive to much deeper extremes – had an even bigger impact on me. One of these characters was Kiki, and when I heard her full story, it inspired me to finally crystallise the concept of my next project – a documentary series about the psychology of people who specialise in challenging underwater environments.

From the beginning, I knew I wanted to go in the opposite direction of previous documentaries about the underwater world, which I felt ignored the meditative nature of diving. Instead of doing an epic, adrenaline-fuelled style of storytelling, I wanted to take a more character-driven, psychological approach so I could depict these individuals more authentically and sensitively. 

AH: You came straight out of film school into making Descent, and it’s a really ambitious first feature film, particularly in terms of how much underwater cinematography was involved. How did you go about executing the vision you had for Descent?

NB: I was very fortunate that the final year I had at film school included a wide variety of assignments that allowed me to flesh out my ideas for Descent in greater detail. Some of these included style bibles, proof of concept trailers, production strategies, pitch sessions, acting exercises and at the end of my third and final year, writing the 40-page scripts of the first two episodes. However, because it’s impossible to get a full series green-lit without a pilot, I shifted my energy to independently producing a 60-minute piece on Kiki that could function both as the pilot and as a standalone film. In the six months leading up to filming, I balanced my duties as a producer handling logistics with time for creative work.

I drew inspiration from both documentaries (Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, Jago: A Life Underwater, Man On Wire) and fictional series (Breaking Bad, The Sopranos) to refine my ideas on how to visually and aurally convey motivations, thought processes and the internal struggles of their characters. However, the decision to portray the underwater world as a place of calm and depth, literally and metaphorically, came from my own experiences, as well as those of the other underwater camera operators. We shared the same viewpoints on how the ocean affects our psychology, and my job as the director was to translate Kiki’s descriptions of how she feels underwater into the various cinematic elements.

AH: How did your previous projects inform how you approached Descent, from both a filmmaking and diving perspective?

NB: Before I began work on Descent, I attended many classes, seminars and workshops in high school and film school that focused on acting and character development. That really influenced my gravitation towards the character-driven style of storytelling, because I feel like films are a way for us to probe human behaviour, regardless of whether the stories are real or fictional. I played around with this style many times while I was making short films as a student, and almost all of my stories were either documentaries or based on real events, which made it a great learning experience for me as a non-fiction storyteller.

On the other side, I also began to take note of the psychological experiences that came along with my self-prescribed diving education. When I took my open water course at the age of 12, I was immediately enthralled by not only the calming yet imperative nature of breathing in SCUBA diving, but also how a calm, clearheaded personality is needed for diving in the ocean. Nearly a decade later, I worked my way up to the point where I could dive to 40m both with and without tanks. However, the youthful hunger for deeper depths had been replaced by a desire to enjoy the silence of the water. That psychological experience definitely had an osmotic effect on my filmmaking, not just with Descent, but also the short underwater films I was making on the side. Interestingly, it wasn’t until we started filming Descent that I realised Kiki’s own diving education and philosophy was nearly identical to mine.

AH: The film is visually immaculate. How did you go about achieving that?

NB: Although storytelling and character development were (and still are) my biggest priorities as a filmmaker, I also wanted to make the film stand out visually as well. I shot a lot of the dry footage and a few underwater sequences, but I also wanted to work with other cinematographers who would be able to bring their own styles to the picture. Although I spent a fair bit of time coming up with mood boards and style reels, I have to give credit to both the various cinematographers and the stunning locations we were shooting in. We mainly shot with RED Digital Cinema cameras, but at the end of the day, the camera brands and technicalities were secondary to the story.

However, I think a lot of the film’s most stunning visuals can be attributed to Stefan Andrews’ archival footage. The footage of Kiki diving in the icy waters of Scandinavia still blows me away to this day, especially if you consider that it was shot on a mirrorless Panasonic camera. I think filmmaking is a lot like alchemy, considering how it really is a combination of the efforts of so many people.

AH: You spoke before about how important it was to be completely comfortable in the water as a diver. I’m wondering how much the icy water added an additional challenge to filming?

NB: When you’re shooting in water that can be as cold as 3°C, just going into that water is challenging enough, but when you have to film in it, it multiplies the difficulty by 10. Both the communication and dive time are extremely limited, particularly for Kiki, because she dives in only a swimsuit and entirely focused on handling the cold. On top of that, the lighting and dive conditions can be quite unpredictable, which means you regularly have to scratch your preexisting plan and come up with a new one.

When we were in Milford Sound, my job as the director meant I had to descend up and down to the SCUBA diving team at 18m and the freediving and dry team on the surface. That meant I had to do 100 or so dives through a 9°C halocline as a freediver, because if I did that on scuba, I would have gotten bent instantly.

However, the biggest challenge for me wasn’t actually shooting in cold water, but rather the editing process. I had about 150 hours of footage, and I only had five months to edit it before the deadline. It was a delicate balance between accurately conveying all the components of Kiki’s story but also making sure it was a compelling story that was hitting all the right emotional beats.

AH: Kiki spoke really inspiringly about her recovery from her sexual assault. How did you handle these sensitive topics, and how did you bring Kiki into that conversation so she felt comfortable with the way her story was being told?

NB: When I first met Kiki in London nearly three years ago, she had not yet revealed that she was raped, but when she did around the #MeToo movement kicked off, that’s when I knew that her story was one that I wanted to tell. I told her about what I was up to with Descent, and I made an effort not to rush the friendship or trust-building. I let it evolve naturally over two years so that by the time we started filming, she felt quite comfortable going into a lot of things that she hadn’t dealt with in her psychology. We actually ended up doing an exercise with post-it notes, and we asked her to consult on what the most significant parts of her life story were. I later learned how uncommon that is for documentary filmmaking, because of how hard it is to build up trust. 

AH: As a diver yourself, do you think portraying the psychological side of extreme sports will be a recurring theme for you in the future?

NB: I definitely feel like the psychological, character-driven style of storytelling is the direction I want to go in for the future. I don’t know yet if I will venture into other extreme sports, but I know that the underwater world will always be a place of intrigue for me, particularly in the stories of the people who thrive there.

I think given my “bilingual” background in both film and diving, my job as the creator of Descent is almost like being a translator, and I feel a profound sense of duty to bridge the gap between these two worlds as a storyteller.

Visit the Sydney Film festival website to watch Descent.

Nays Baghai is an award-winning independent filmmaker and underwater cameraman based in Sydney, Australia.