Sundance 2023: A Beautiful Story of Divers in 'The Deepest Breath'
by Alex Billington
January 25, 2023
I did not know what I was getting into with The Deepest Breath. I did not know I was about to watch one of my favorite documentaries of the year. I went on a journey with all these people and can never forget this experience. The Deepest Breath is a extraordinary and awe-inspiring work of cinematic art. I was lucky to attend the world premiere screening at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival of this A24 / Netflix co-production, directed by Irish filmmaker Laura McGann. This exceptional documentary film is this year's Fire of Love (nominated for an Oscar!) – both films follow the beautiful story of a couple, examining their lives living on the edge and doing something radical that few other people on this planet do. The Deepest Breath is about a freediving couple and the incredibly dangerous sport of freediving - the act of holding your breath for long periods of time while diving or swimming. It moved me beyond words, I was wiping away tears by the end.
Laura McGann (also of the doc Revolutions previously) spent years collecting all of the footage and putting together this film, and it shows. Her passion for telling this story is evident in every frame of this film. The Deepest Breath introduces us all to two wonderful people - ambitious Italian freediving champion Alessia Zecchini, and the beloved Irish adventurer / freediving instructor / safety diver Stephen Keenan. They don't meet until many years later into their careers, but the film tells their stories in parallel from childhood into adulthood. There's a lovely cinematic comparison throughout with how they each choose unique lives. Aside from a harrowing inside look at the sport for freediving, the doc is another life-affirming reminder that living a good life is not about the money you make, but what you do, how you treat people, what you dedicate your life to, what your time is spent on. There's even a few interviews with Stephen's father where he candidly discusses this, saying that at first he wasn't sure if his son was successful, but after watching this film there's no way anyone can deny - this man was a hero. He changed lives, he even literally saved lives.
This world premiere screening experience at Sundance 2023 was unforgettable, which is what I strive for at Sundance year after year. Another person wrote on Twitter after it ended: "I don’t think I'll ever be able to explain the anxiety everyone in the theater just felt watching The Deepest Breath. Wow." It was the epitome of a collective emotional experience, all of us in that room being swept away this remarkable story being told on the screen in front of us. I could hear two industry guys sitting right behind me gasping the whole time, occasionally muttering quietly under their breath "wow" or "ohh man…" Even they were deeply affected. We all sat there in awe, holding our breath just as the divers did, as they tried to accomplish the impossible, something that none of us in that room could ever dream of doing. I don't think there was a single person left without tears in their eyes when it ended, not only because of Stephen's story, also because we were all completely taken away by how overwhelmingly powerful this film is. It's a documentary film about passion, about love, about humans, about the lengths we go to follow our dreams, about feeling truly free in our lives.
What makes The Deepest Breath so special is how cinematic it is. I wish everyone could have this experience that all of us at Sundance had watching it on the big screen. It's not only talking heads, nor is it only archival footage. Similar to doc masterworks like Moonage Daydream, McGann made sure sound design, the score (by Nainita Desai is ravishing!), editing, all worked in perfect harmony to capture the deep emotions of this story of these two people. I had chills the entire film. There wasn't a moment I wasn't completely caught up in the story, fully immersed in their experiences and what they were going through. It's an astonishing doc. If you've already watched Fire of Love and were moved by the story of the Kraffts and how filmmaker Sara Dosa put that together, you have to add The Deepest Breath to your watchlist immediately. It's just as incredible, as eye-opening, and as inspiring as that one. While I may never be a freediver, I aspire to live a life as wonderful as Stephen's. And I wish Alessia all the best success as she continues following her dreams.