Claustrophobia affects 2-5% of the world’s population. But I really don’t think you need to go to a clinical extent in order to feel some anxiety in caves. At times beautiful, they are one of the few terrestrial conditions where humans are just not evolutionarily adept. Fill them with water (that other element in which humans are not designed to excel), make that water near-freezing, and glacial underwater caves are literal death traps.
Scuba divers go to extreme lengths in terms of technology, planning and preparations to undertake the sport. A few years ago, a team of 5 experienced Finnish divers were trapped in a Norwegian underwater cave system. Intending to film the deepest part of the dive, and having started in two teams from both ends of the caves, they met trouble midway and lost two men when they became stuck in a narrow passage, blocking the entire system. The 3 others survived, one with severe spinal cord injuries that meant he would never dive again. Yet the ordeal wasn’t over. An international team of Norwegian and British rescuers could not complete the operations to retrieve the remains.
Diving into the Unknown starts from this juncture, when the survivors were driven to run a (technically) illegal operation to recover the bodies of their friends. The film is straight-forward, documenting the logistics, the macabre considerations of body selvage, and the mental challenges for the divers at the prospect of not simply revisiting a place where they saw death, but looking into the faces of dead friends. It isn’t over-laden with details, but it was 30 minutes into the film that we could glimpse of the layout of the caves and compute just what a nightmare they were working with. You can feel the light touch of the filmmakers, and perhaps a nod to Nordic restraint, when dealing with such a delicate subject. Diving into the Unknown falls on the cold and technical side of the emotional spectrum, with clean and sleek graphics, calming (they have to be, to prevent excessive carbon dioxide generation) diving sequences, and matter-of-fact narration. This is really what the documentary medium is designed to do: allow us to live vicariously through another. In this film, you get a visceral sense of the contradiction and juxtaposition: cave dives go from serenely rewarding to disorientingly catastrophic in a matter of seconds. And there is often nothing you can do about it – which for this modern era is probably the most difficult aspect to overcome. But upon seeing that the divers emerge from the air-water interface more astronauts than sportsmen, you can really appreciate that fact of their lives.
This is certainly not a light subject. But it is worthwhile if you have the stomach.
Diving Into The Unknown screen 3 times at Hot Docs this year, May 1st, 3rd, and 8th.