by Liam Ridolfi

With Diving into the Darkness – a powerfully magical marriage of real-life adventure and stunning visual imagery, acclaimed filmmaker and underwater cameraman Nays Baghai proves that he is a master at capturing some of the most beautiful and terrifying natural elements of our world.

Intimately detailing the exploits of accomplished cave diver Jill Heinerth, the result is as excitingly bewildering as it is sensitively poignant.

We spoke with Nays Baghai, whose last film Descent won the Documentary Australia Award at the Sydney Film Festival.

What initially drew you to the world of cave diving, and how did you come across Jill Heinerth’s incredible expeditions?

“I was very young when I first became passionate about combining filmmaking and diving as a career. In my eyes, cave diving has always represented the highest level of challenge in both diving and exploration. Although I was always fascinated by diving into challenging environments, I was a relative late bloomer as a cave diver, and felt apprehensive towards it at first. In fact, I can clearly remember watching the underwater caving sequences in Planet Earth with my family, and seeing them absolutely mortified by what they were watching, imploring me never to try cave diving! [laughs]

“Little did I know that 16 years later, I would dive in the very same caves in Mexico that were depicted in that very episode. The ultimate impetus for my cave diving journey was the day I met Jill at the OzTek Advanced Diving Conference in 2017. At the time, I was a second year film student, and barely knew anyone in the diving industry.

“By pure chance, Jill was one of the first people I met, and I was pleasantly surprised at how warm, generous and kind she was as a person, especially considering the gruelling, hardcore cave diving expeditions she had just described on stage minutes earlier. I asked her what her motivations for cave diving were, and she listed nearly a dozen different reasons, as opposed to just one answer. This fascinated me because of how deep and complex – literally and figuratively – her passion was. What truly surprised me was how Jill naturally connected cave diving to my various childhood interests – exploration, space, science fiction, travel, snorkelling, problem-solving, psychology and storytelling. That was when I knew for sure that I had to take a cave diving course not only to satiate my own curiosity, but also to be more familiar with the source material around Jill’s story. Moreover, I knew that it would make a huge difference towards morale and communication if I was able to dive down into the caves with the rest of the underwater crew.”

Diving into the Darkness must have been a complex and challenging project. Can you share some of the most significant obstacles you faced while filming in such extreme environments?

“Filming underwater in open water is challenging enough; you don’t have the luxuries of communication, gravity, lighting, controlled conditions and many more. But when you venture into caves, it multiplies the difficulty immeasurably.

“For starters, you are in an overhead environment with the surface hundreds of metres away. It also requires complex life support equipment to dive in there safely. And even if you are an experienced diver with good technique, the risks of losing visibility, getting lost or running out of air are still present if you do not follow the rules or control your emotions. To complicate it further, you have complex lighting setups to execute within minutes in total darkness, and that’s not counting the massive shot lists which require an unheard-of level of creativity and technical dexterity.

“Fortunately, our team of divers for both Mexico and New Zealand consisted of world-class professionals who knew exactly how to handle projects with this degree of difficulty. Possibly the most challenging sequence to film was the re-enactment of a biology expedition that we shot in Mexico’s Minotauro cave system. Minotauro is notorious for its claustrophobically tight passages; during the first scout dive, I remember swimming through one passage that could not have been taller than my coffee table. While I was elated that we’d found a great location for the scenes, I was also daunted by the logistics of fitting the six of us inside such tiny passages. We eventually decided to trim the underwater team from six people down to three for this sequence, and shift to a more intuitive approach (as opposed to the usually prescriptive method of filming). Despite the frustrating aspect of no longer being underwater and supervising this sequence like I could with previous dives, it did afford me more time to review the dailies after each dive, do scratch edits on my laptop in the middle of the jungle, and communicate my vision with Janne [Suhonen, the lead underwater cinematographer].”

Jill Heinerth is known for her fearless approach to cave diving. How did her personality and expertise influence the direction and narrative of your documentary?

“Jill’s fearlessness definitely influenced me as a storyteller, particularly in the decision to utilise a non-chronological structure, as well as 2D animation for the flashback sequences. However, fearlessness needs to be rooted in logic and thoughtfulness, and that is certainly the case with Jill when she meticulously accounts for the risks in whatever dive she’s about to do. When I wrote the script, I definitely absorbed that attitude when I made the decision to tell a non-linear story, because I knew that the chronological structure of the book [Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver] was incompatible with the roller coaster experience a viewer expects whilst watching a film; I wanted everyone to feel the up-and-down nature of Jill’s life.

“Jill also has a defiant side to her, and that well and truly influenced my decision to present the flashbacks as 2D animated sequences. At the time, this was when there were rumblings about whether animation negated the purity of documentaries, despite the success of animated documentaries like Waltz with Bashir and Flee. Because I too have a defiant, mischievous side, I got a bit of a thrill of doing something creatively dangerous. Jill’s personality and expertise also had a massive influence on the camaraderie and work ethic of all the three crews that worked with her (Canada, Mexico, New Zealand). She has so many admirable qualities— enthusiasm, energy, stamina, punctuality, creativity, determination, level headedness, and experience — that had such an osmotic effect on everyone. The environment amongst the team was a very collaborative, democratic one, where the goal was to feel like one collective mind in pursuit of the same goal. In many ways, the experience was more comparable to a caving expedition than a film set.

“For me as a director, what really made her such a delight to work with was her fluency in the filmmaking process on both sides of the camera, which made communicating my vision and to problem solve with her a walk in the park.”

We adore the intimate and sensitive depiction of the relationship between Jill and her husband Robert. In what ways did you connect with the two of them as a storyteller and how did that inform your approach to the other elements of the film?

“As a director, I like to empathise with the characters I’m working with. If they’re real-life documentary subjects, I like to do my homework and establish a connection before we begin filming, and that was certainly the case with both Jill and Robert. In addition to having lots of mutual interests, I also found we had a lot in common in terms of personality, especially having a curious, adventurous spirit and wanting to live life to the fullest. Establishing a genuine friendship before we began filming meant that they were both more relaxed on camera, and allowed me to probe areas and topics that would have otherwise been uncomfortable and awkward. I was particularly fascinated by their dynamic as husband and wife, considering how the dangerous nature of Jill’s profession would no doubt play a role in it. I drew influence from the therapy scenes in The Sopranos when we were filming this scene, and I wanted to use this part as a way of highlighting the character-driven nature of the whole story. I thought, what was the point of showing Jill doing these death-defying dives if her personal life was empty, and she didn’t have friends and family on land concerned about her? I am convinced that Robert’s scenes represent one of the film’s more soulful, endearing aspects, while also subtly raising the stakes in the story.”

Jill Heinerth has a deep connection with the caves she explores. How did you go about capturing her personal reflections and the emotional aspects of her expeditions?

“There were really two aspects in capturing the plethora of emotions Jill experienced in her various expeditions. The first was through a combination of reading her book and interviewing her to really try to understand how she felt, what she went through and the overall effect of such profound experiences.

“Fortunately, Jill is such an articulate person and a natural public speaker, so she had little difficulty speaking to the highs and lows of each expedition in great detail. The second way in which I wanted to capture her experience was by drawing from my own previous adventures as a diver, as well as diving in the caves alongside the crew. In hindsight, had I not dived the caves of Mexico, it would have been impossible for me to convey the incredible psychological experience of cave diving through various story and stylistic choices as a director.

“It truly is the closest thing I have ever experienced to being an earthbound astronaut, and I felt like I was living a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. A common sentiment amongst the crew was how we were all relatively unhappy with the paucity of films that captured the authenticity and overall ‘soul’ of diving, and how most were frequently sensationalised and inaccurate. Because of my background as a diver, and because I had become somewhat of a translator between the two worlds of film and diving, I felt a massive sense of pressure to get it right and honour the promise I had made to my friends.”

We wanted to end on a question regarding the beginning of the film. The film opens with a quote from James Cameron saying ‘more people have been to the moon than to the places Jill Heinerth has explored deep inside our watery planet’, which is then followed by a breathtaking shot of Jill exploring the large crevice of a cave. It is an astonishing revelation. Was it a goal of yours to shed light on this and do you believe there is not enough of an appreciation for just how vast and mysterious the dark caves of our world are?”

“Absolutely, yes to both of those. I believe that caves are the final frontier on our planet. Going back to the similarities that cave diving has with being an astronaut, so many of Earth’s caves are so remote and poorly understood, they’re prime testing grounds for space exploration. The very equipment we use – rebreathers, drysuits, scooters, cameras, lights, mapping devices – is perfectly comparable to what astronauts use for spacewalks. And then there’s the role that caves can play in sustaining us as a society as underground rivers containing fresh, drinkable water. To quote Jill – these caves are like the veins of mother earth.

“However, for me as a filmmaker interested in human behaviour, the most fascinating aspect of cave diving is the psychological dimension. It teaches you how to stay calm under pressure, become comfortable in the darkness, work with teams both big and small, and be an agile problem solver, without ever losing your sense of curiosity and appreciation for the natural environment. If I can instil a sense of appreciation, awe and wonder amongst viewers, then I will have done my job as a storyteller.”

Diving into the Darkness screens at the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival on 27 July 2024 at Cinema Nova. Tickets here. For more on the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival, head here.