Translating Between Two Worlds: An Interview with Nays Baghai

Making its premiere at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, Nays Baghai’s first feature length film Descent is a compelling documentary portrait of Dutch ice freediver Kiki Bosch. We watch as Bosch rediscovers her purpose in life after being raped, through an unexpected and liberating form of therapy ― plunging to icy depths of up to 40 metres in a bikini, on one held breath.

With 20 film festival awards already under his belt for previous short films as a teenager, Baghai is a young filmmaker to watch, and is an avid freediver and scuba diver himself. Michelle Wang spoke with the director and underwater cameraman ahead of the film’s release, learning more about the psychology of the dangerous sport through Baghai’s thoughtful interpretation of Bosch’s story.

CW: Sexual assault, rape

Michelle Wang: How did you come across this story?

Nays Baghai: The whole inception of Descent really started when I got interested in underwater cinematography at the age of 18 while I was at AFTRS (The Australian Film Television and Radio School). To complement the ‘dry’ film studies I was doing there, I was doing a lot of dives in deep, cold conditions here in Sydney, but also when I was travelling with my family. One of the places I went to was actually in Iceland where the two continental plates meet, and the water is two degrees celsius but crystal clear. A lot of the people who were seeing my adventures in Sydney and Iceland who weren’t divers themselves were commenting, “You’re absolutely crazy, why would you do something so risky and irresponsible?”. And that kind of left a huge impression ― the whole ‘why’ component of that question particularly. It just stuck in the back of my mind. 

But another response I got was from my diving friends who said that I should check out this lady who dives in Silfra where I had just been, in her bikini and on one breath. And I was like okay, I’m interested; because in addition to being a scuba diver, I’m also a free diver, and I know how difficult it is to do that. So when I met Kiki in person, I heard the full story from her in terms of not only where she had been in her adventures but also how the trauma was the whole catalyst for her ice freediving journey. That’s when I really felt motivated to tell her story. Also, as I was meeting a lot of other people, not just freedivers but tech divers, shark divers and rec divers, I just felt this natural urge to make a series about this concept, which is people who dive into dangerous underwater environments ― what is their psychology and why do they do it?

MW: I love hearing the process of how you came across the story. Just out of personal interest, what are tech divers?

NB: So, with normal scuba diving you go to 30-40m on a normal tank and it’s very recreational and relaxed in that sense. Technical divers will go beyond that depth, sometimes as deep as 200m. We often use a piece of technology called a rebreather which actually recycles the carbon dioxide that you exhale, converts it into oxygen that you can breathe through a loop and as a result you can stay down there for up to three hours. I really love the psychology of tech divers, because you think that they’d be these aggressive, macho guys who want to snatch these depths and prove themselves, but very much like freedivers, it’s really quite the opposite ― they’re very relaxed and calm but also incredibly methodical with the safety preparations they put in.

MW: Descent is such a beautiful piece of work you captured the “connection to the water” Kiki talks about in a mesmerising style. Could you talk to me about the process of figuring out how you wanted to approach this documentary, and how that was executed in the ‘making of’? 

NB: From the very beginning, I really knew in my mind that I wanted to depart from the cliched and standard style of storytelling that has been used with this subject matter, and that kind of storytelling style usually was a very epic, adrenaline-fuelled, action-orientated sport. It was very much all about the sports and almost as I said before, the macho aspect of it, which I really wasn’t interested in. What I wanted to do was to go in a more character-driven, psychological style that was more similar to the series Chef’s Table (2015–). I also felt like that because I was doing a lot of character work as a director with actors.

I guess because I had a yin-yang going on between diving and film I felt like a translator between these two worlds, and part of that role as a translator meant that not only did I want to bring a more artistically sensible style to it with sight, sound, and structure, but I also felt a huge amount of responsibility to bring authenticity on my part as a freediver to it, and really say: this is made by freediver about a freediver for freedivers, if you want. The other thing was also that I knew that if Kiki didn’t trust me, I knew I would not be able to do the character work that I wanted to do. So over a period of about two years, I slowly built up a friendship with her to the point where she trusted me enough to go into a lot of the things that she went into in the interviews, and she felt comfortable on camera.

MW: I think that trust really comes across, I found the film very touching. And how did your own connection to scuba diving and freediving affect the way you approached this documentary?

NB: So I said earlier how my own experiences in diving and friendship were what inspired this, but I feel like my diving influenced me in asking the right questions about a diver’s psychology because I knew that firsthand. I also felt like that because as I got more confident and advanced in diving, I started to realise how it really is quite meditative and serene down there. That’s why I get so pissed off at these documentaries that portray it as a suicidal daredevil sport because it’s really quite the opposite from that. I say that for me, I love diving because it is relaxing, but also because there is a psychoanalytical side to it as well. 

There’s a freediver called Grant Graves who has this expression “you can’t lie to the water”, and what he means by that is that when you’re in the ocean ― warm or cold, shallow or deep ― your personality really has nowhere to hide when you’re against the elements. You really learn a lot about yourself when you’re doing that, and I think in Kiki’s case it’s definitely no exception to that rule. That kind of psychological depth ― no pun intended ― is what I wanted to capture with this kind of story. I think that one of the reasons I’m friends with Kiki is because both of us can dive to 40m with and without tanks, but we don’t do it for the numbers, we do it for the relaxing, meditative side of it.

MW: When I watched it, I thought you really captured how it was relaxing and this sheer sense of presence that Kiki experienced when she went into the cold, cold water. I just couldn’t quite imagine doing that myself, I just thought ‘Wow it’s so cold’. But I was so in awe watching how powerful the experience was. It was interesting having that mindset conveyed to me, an audience member who doesn’t have that experience or insight at all.

NB: Thank you, Michelle. It’s not like that most freedivers are super athletes or swimmers from childhood, I definitely wasn’t that, but I just guessed that essentially if Kiki can do it and I can do it, then anyone can do it.

MW: I wanted to ask you about the uniqueness of Kiki’s story and the healing that ice freediving brought her. In telling Kiki’s story why do you think it’s important and specifically how this led you to convey her story too?

NB: When Kiki revealed to me that she had been raped and that was the catalyst for her whole journey, it actually occurred around the same time that the whole #MeToo movement sparked across the world. I knew that it would be a timely subject but also I knew that issues of sexual assault and healing would age well, and they would also speak to not just other women who had been through similar trauma and are looking for healing ― but also other men who had also been through backgrounds of trauma and mental illness and really found the cold as therapeutic as she did. 

I feel like there are two schools of thought when people see Kiki’s story. The first type of viewer is the person that loves her story and really is inspired to try it themselves, and the other school of thought is a person who thinks that she’s absolutely crazy and absolutely nuts and completely impossible to relate to, which I’m cool with, by the way. But I think either way it’s a fun way to provoke a debate after you’ve seen it.

MW: So, I’ve also read on your IMDb that you are also a musician! I’d love to know how your relationship to music impacts the way you use sound in your films.

NB: For the last 20 years or so I’ve been a musician who’s pretty much lived and breathed music everyday. I pretty much became a musician when my parents learnt that I had a pitch perfect ear, and could memorise the details of a piece of music a day after listening to it. Being immersed in music and sounds for so long not only helps me in identifying what kinds of pieces of music and sound design elements I want in the films I do, but also if I’m working with a composer, it helps me be really specific and detailed in the kinds of notes that I give. For instance I’ll be able to pinpoint whether this is a Gsus chord or how this crescendo could be adjusted to suit a particular scene and it definitely makes communication a lot easier on my part. 

With this one, I was really lucky to work with one of my oldest friends from high school, a guy called Kailesh Reitmans, and we really had a lot of fun working together. I actually ended up playing on two of the tracks that he used in the soundtrack because he was having trouble getting a good guitar and bass guitar sound for one of the songs and I just said, “I’ll come over and record that for you”, and we did that in a couple of takes and that was it.

MW: Well, it definitely comes in handy you can just put your hand up to get the job done as well. In addition to your musical expertise, your other disciplines are diving and filmmaking. When you bring those together as you have with Descent, what do you love about underwater camerawork, and can you tell me about some of the more challenging shoots you’ve encountered?

NB: Although I told you that I started doing underwater cinematography when I was 18, I really got interested in it when I was seven, which is when I was a huge marine biology nerd as a kid, just reading every book I could lay my hands on. My grandmother gave me the four-disk special edition of The Blue Planet (2001) for my birthday and there was this behind-the-scenes documentary where they were showing these cameramen with their rebreathers, filming these giant schools of hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands. And I remember yelling to my parents, “I want to do that when I’m a grown up!”. And sure enough, I ended up doing that almost 15 years later from that day. I think now that I get to do that as one of my three main disciplines ― it really is a yin-and-yang combination of my two biggest passions which are diving and film, but also the challenge of going down deep below the ocean and staying calm while doing that ― so literally and figuratively handling the pressure. It’s a fun challenge but it’s also really rewarding to walk away with images you fondly look back on.

Going to the second component of your question ― what are the challenging shoots I’ve done? It’s kind of an interesting question because do I think about it in my career outside, or just with Descent? There’s one story we had during Descent that really stands head and shoulders above the rest ― are you ready for it?

MW: I’m ready.

NB: Okay, so this is an anomaly because I was actually not behind the camera for this one but I was directing this one. In the ending when we’re in the Milford Sound in New Zealand…basically, shooting in cold water is one of the most difficult things you can do because in addition to the limited communication, the changing visibility conditions, and also just how exhausting it is, we also were working in water that was nine degrees celsius top to bottom. My job as a director meant that I had to liaise between the cameraman and the safety diver at 18 metres, and the safety team which was Kiki, the safety diver, and the boat at the surface. As I couldn’t do this on scuba, I had to dive up and down, up and down, hundreds of times a day. 

I couldn’t just switch off like I usually do ― I actually had to look at how the camera was sitting up, how Kiki was doing, what the lighting was like and because you’re doing that over such a long period of days. I’ve had brushes with hypothermia and thrashing currents and even colder water than that, and working on remote islands before that, but nothing was as exhausting or challenging as those two days of shooting.

Descent screens as part of Sydney Film Festival’s Virtual Edition and Awards from June 10–21 2020. More info here.

*********

Michelle Wang writes, dreams and eats in Sydney. That’s pretty much it aside from voraciously consuming most things with subtitles or featuring Adam Driver. 

Michelle Wang