Review: ‘Descent’ is a Cathartic Deep Dive That Takes Your Breath Away

CW: Sexual assault

I am not a person who copes well with the cold, and by halfway through Nays Baghai’s documentary, Descent, I had full-body shivers. Despite watching the movie in the comfort of my house, Baghai’s portrait of ice freediver Kiki Bosch is so immersive that I could feel the chill across my entire body.

The first shot of Bosch, standing in water, surrounded by chunks of ice and wearing only one-piece bathers, takes your breath away. But unlike Bosch, who holds her breath when diving underwater with no scuba gear and no wetsuit, the audience can exhale any time. In her ice freedives, there’s a tiny margin of error that doesn’t allow for any panic. It’s a truly extreme sport that few attempt.

In the opening montage, Bosch begins by answering the inevitable question of why she freedives. “It’s something that saved my life and has taught me so many things ever since,” she says. In this tight, hour-long documentary, a combination of interviews with Bosch, live-action recreations of her childhood, footage of her freediving, and interviews with loved ones and experts are used to piece together the full extent of why, and the key follow-up: how?

Bosch, who is from the Netherlands, was a university student with a love of swimming and scuba diving when she first came across freediving – diving without scuba gear – on holiday in Colombia. She took to it immediately, invested to the extent that she dropped out of university and moved to Thailand to learn more. There, she worked as a scuba instructor, and one night, she was sexually assaulted by a colleague, for which she blamed herself. When he raped another girl a week later, she felt stricken with guilt for not reporting him. She suffered nightmares and depression, and the water didn’t feel “the same” anymore.

“The water became a metaphor for my own drowning, because I was drowning in guilt,” she says shakily, holding back tears in front of the camera. This sombre part of the film is carried by Bosch’s interview, and the scenes are handled sensitively but without spectacle by Baghai. Intimate close-ups on Bosch’s face are paired with gentle fades into black and shots of her alone on the beach. Baghai’s film doesn’t gloss over Bosch’s assault, but gives it the weight it deserves before focusing on the incredible accomplishments it motivated her to pursue. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, especially in 60 minutes.

Bosch’s recovery was fuelled by discovering videos of Wim Hof, a Dutch extreme athlete who swims and runs barefoot in freezing temperatures. Bosch became obsessed with doing similar, and her first step was to dive in 14-degree water off the coast of South Australia. Her mind “just shut off” from her trauma because of the cold, and she realised it “was just what I needed to stay alive.” From there, she trained hard and proceeded to plunge herself into more extreme temperatures – two degrees in Iceland; minus two degrees in Greenland.

While these feats may seem unfathomable, Bosch and Baghai take care to explain that she’s not superhuman. Her dives are highly organised, and she has a safety team around her. She’s upfront about the pain, which she likens to 1000 needles puncturing her skin, and she’s shown shaking uncontrollably afterwards, a hot water bottle on her hands. Bosch is clear that there’s a “spiritual side” to what she does, which she calls “the pinnacle of mindfulness.” In one scene, she begins to lower herself into the water and the camera makes a series of rapid cuts, mimicking panic. As Bosch, via voiceover, explains the physical sensations of the cold, the sound of her breath is amplified, and a ringing and rushing fill the soundscape. But then Bosch says with determination, “So I surrender,” and the noise abruptly fades away as she glides in.  

Although Bosch often delivers aphorisms about mindfulness and connection, and is seen meditating in the wilderness more than once, Baghai carefully renders her a full, complex human being rather than a hippie cliché. Bosch’s journey from water-loving child, to freediver, to ice freediver, to an instructor in the Wim Hof Method – where she guides people through cold water activities as a form of psychological healing – is granted importance at every stage. When Bosch learns she cannot continue ice freediving for risk of potentially losing her eyesight, her decision to pivot into Wim Hof Method instruction is framed as the beginning of a new stage in her life, rather than a total loss.

It feels strange to call Descent inspiring, given that the audience is warned multiple times not to rush off and attempt Bosch’s feats. But as Bosch says, “what matters is the intrinsic connection to the water.” Bosch encourages all of us to push ourselves to find a new perspective, to find healing in nature, and to put our safety and wellbeing first – whether we start taking ice-baths or not. Baghai’s documentary, anchored by Bosch’s steadfast serenity, is an empathetic, compelling portrait of a champion – a woman who plunged into freezing waters and saved her own life.  

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

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Zoë Almeida Goodall is a film critic, editor and researcher based in Melbourne.

Zoë Almeida Goodall