By Liam Lacey
The sport of freediving — plunging deep into the ocean on a single breath — is one of the most paradoxical of extreme sports, where athletes break records by tuning their bodies down to a minimal state of activity, where the heart-rate plunges, and the mind becomes deeply calm.
The pioneer in this meeting between the inner trip and the lower depths was Frenchman Jacques Mayol. He combined a love of yoga, Zen meditation, and a belief that we are integrally related to dolphins while accomplishing the first 100-meter dive in 1976. His career was memorialized, if substantially fictionalized, in Luc Besson’s 1988 cult drama The Big Blue, a movie that presaged Mayol’s 2001 death, a year after he published his philosophical memoir, Homo Delphinus: The Dolphin Within Man.
The new documentary Dolphin Man, by Greek director Lefteris Charitos, travels around the world and deep in the sea to explore Mayol’s experimental life, partly from his own writings (narrated by Jean-Marc Barr, who played him onscreen) alongside a collection of Mayol’s friends, family, divers, collaborators and spiritual fellow travelers.
Dolphin Man is a three-nation co-production between Greece, France, and Canada. The Canadian producer is Ed Barreveld, whose long list of credits include internationally successful documentaries such as Herman’s House (directed by Angad Bhalla) and The World Before Her (Nisha Pahuja), as well as the History Channel documentaries The Real Sherlock Holmes (Gary Lang) and The Real Inglorious Bastards (Min Sook Lee).
Original-Cin spoke with Barreveld about how he took the plunge to help bring the Mayol documentary to life.
Original-Cin: I want to start by asking how you and your company, Storyline, got involved in this project, so far from home.
Ed Barreveld: I co-produced a film in 2006 with a German and Greek company called The Secrets of the Snake Goddess (a Minoan archeology documentary). Christian Bauer was one of the filmmakers at the time; he passed away about a year after we completed that film. But I kept in touch with the Greek producers. I met them in Amsterdam in 2015 and they mentioned that they were working on working on a film about Jacques Mayol. They asked if I was interested in collaborating with them and I was. I came in after they came up with the idea for the film.
OC: A lot of the post-production work was done in Toronto, wasn't it?
EB: Yeah, the film was edited in Toronto by David Kazala, who I've worked with on several films including The World Before Her, which was nominated for an Emmy and The Real Inglorious Bastards which won the Canadian Screen Award a couple years ago for best history documentary. And we worked with Daniel Pellerin on sound and Urban Post on picture and they brought a level of sensitivity to the film that I don't think we would have got if the film had been cut in Greece.
OC: The editing is complex in weaving together the archival and contemporary footage. When I saw insurance people listed in the closing credits I realized there were more contemporary diving scenes than I had imagined. Apart from the interviews, about what percentage of the diving footage would you say was new?
EB: Well, we really do rely a lot on archival footage but I'm guessing about 50 percent of the contemporary footage was shot by our Greek DOP.
OC: Which adds a whole lot of complexity…
EB: It was a difficult film anyway because you're dealing with a character who is no longer alive, who’s being supported by other voices, either family or people who worked with him.
OC: About half of the interviews seem to be with underwater cinematographers, who became his closest friends. You must have had an over-abundance of material to choose from in certain times in his life.
EB: He was very well-documented and he was very media savvy. We had to deal with what we could get in time and what we could afford. In fact, we went over-budget on all our archival material because a lot of it proved more expensive than we thought it would be. We worked with visual researcher Erin Chisholm, who’s also based in Toronto and very accomplished. The Greek producers had done a little bit of research but Erin really dug deep and found lots of interesting material. Some of it wasn’t available because of cost, some was unusable but there’s a lot of interesting things she found for the film.
OC: I confess I got a little puzzled at times, especially in the 70s when so much was going on. In 1975, his girlfriend Gerda was murdered by a stranger in a supermarket. The next year, he sets a world diving record of 100 meters and in 1977 he directs a softcore adult movie, Lure of the Triangle, off the coast of Bermuda…
EB: I think this was very much in keeping with Mayol wanting to do different things and sort of be out there and Lure of the Triangle was part of that. I haven’t watched the whole thing — it’s not really watchable. We had to tone down the bits we used in our film and some of our funders weren’t happy with it. We keep it in there because we like it. But just a heads up: The film will eventually end up on TV in Ontario and the Knowledge Network and they wanted one scene excised from their version.
OC: You’re talking about the simulated underwater sex sequence?
EB: Yeah. A little too racy for the public broadcaster.
OC: For those who want it uncut, I’ve noticed the streaming site Moving Docs already has this available for rent or purchase in the United States. What’s happening in Canada?
EB: Yes, in certain territories. Currently the film is playing in Canada and we will have DVD available three months after TVO does its initial broadcast which we anticipate to be in January or February. So the DVD will be available sometime in May and we’ll probably have an addition 30 or 40 minutes of outtakes in there.
OC: Do you think it’s possible to psychologize someone like Mayol in any way? It seems people close to him didn’t really have access to his inner life.
EB: You know, he was just a really complex person. I think you get that sense from the film that he had different personas, almost. I actually have a kind of like a personal connection to him. In the early 2000s, I worked with a Canadian filmmaker, Patricia Sims, who is currently based in B.C. and who had been his long-term girlfriend; lived with him for 12 years. He actually committed suicide during the time we were working on her film.
From talking about him with her, I got that he was very much an egocentric and an eccentric, very money-conscious and, I think, very proud. We talk about this in the film, how The Big Blue was a turning point in his life. It should have been something that would have elevated him. But I think on a personal level it really brought him down. He wanted to play himself in the film rather than the actor, Jean-Marc Barr. At the end of the film, he and Luc Besson were unhappy with each other. I think that was the beginning of the end for him. He was charismatic but difficult and, as I said, just really complex.
Dolphin Man has a special premiere screening November 9, 8:45 pm, at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, and screens for one week thereafter at Toronto’s Carlton Cinema.