Wednesday, November 16, 2016

DOC NYC ’16: Diving into the Unknown

This must be the most depressing caper movie in the history of cinema. In February 2014, two Finnish scuba divers died while exploring the underwater Plura caves in the frozen north of Norway. Less than two months later, their four surviving comrades led a mission to recover their bodies. Juan Reina documented this grim operation in Diving into the Unknown (trailer here), which screens during DOC NYC 2016.

All the Plura divers were experienced and none could be described as reckless. Perhaps they did not fully understand the degree of difficulty of those particular caves. That would prove fatal when minor complications suddenly exploded into full-fledged tragedy. Teams of Norwegian and British divers tried to retrieve the bodies, but to no avail. At that point, the local police called off the recovery efforts and declared the caves off-limits to civilian divers.

Despite risking possible arrest, Patrik Grönqvist, Vesa Rantanen, Kai Känkänen, and Sami Paakkarinen return, with reinforcements, hoping to bring back the bodies and a bit of closure for their families. As fate would have it, the Finns were filming their deadly February dive, so viewers will see a good deal of what transpired in Plura. However, the step-by-step mechanics of the tragedy and subsequent recovery remain murky. Frankly, it is often difficult to make out just what is happening on-screen.

In contrast, Reina skillfully employs graphics to explain to viewers just where the April 2014 party is within the cave system and how deep they are below sea level. As a result, we definitely have a sense of the danger they are facing. We just have no idea whether they are proceeding according to plan.

In many respects, the stiff-upper lip stoicism of the Finnish divers is admirable, but it does not do Reina any dramatic favors. We quickly come to admire their loyalty and resolve, yet there is no getting around the fact we are watching a group of inherently reserved and deeply depressed men quietly wrestling with their guilt.

Most viewers will easily understand why Reina was compelled to chronicle the divers’ efforts. It is also nice to see the virtues embodied by the Finns represented on-screen. Nevertheless, it is a visually and figuratively dark viewing experience. If you have a taste for existentially downbeat films, then Diving into the Unknown will be your catnip when it screens tomorrow (11/17), as part of DOC NYC 2016.