Michael Hayward's Blog

WFF 2023: "Diving in a Drop"

Michael Hayward

Diving in a Drop is a French documentary feature (original title Une Goutte d’eau sur un volcan), an example of that genre of films usually described as “mountain adventure films.” There are festivals that specialize in “mountain adventure films,” and the genre attracts a small but loyal audience. Naturally there is also a small but productive industry to produce suitable content, and a regular supply of “adventurers” who can be featured in such films.

There is, of course, a bit of a formula: the protagonists must be presented as “adventurers.” There must be risk, or the perception of risk. It also helps if the adventurers are attempting a “first,” no matter how obscure or narrow the category in which they hope to excel: the first ascent or circumnavigation of something remote; the first ascent or circumnavigation on foot; or on one foot; or on one foot with a hand held behind the back and the left eye closed. Added points if there are constraints (“a solo climb”; “without oxygen”), or if the setting is extreme: a far corner of the globe; the furthest edge of the atmosphere; the bottom of a deep abyss. Diving in a Drop has all, or most, of the above.

The film documents a two-man expedition to one of several glacier-fed lakes located on the upper slopes of the Ojos del Salado volcano in Argentina’s Atacama Desert, a destination sufficiently extreme that it can be correctly described as “one of the highest lakes in the world.”

The two protagonist-adventurers in this film are Frédéric Swierczynski, a cave diver, and Sébastien Devrient, a mountain guide and the film’s director. We learn that they had been part of a similar expedition to this region the previous year, when Frédéric (or Fred) had attempted to set a record by diving in a lake at 6400 meters altitude. When it proved impossible to reach that lake, he’d had to settle for diving in one at 5800 meters. This followup expedition hopes to reach the 6400 meter lake, and to have both men dive. They also aim to make this expedition “autonomous” (the narrator noting somewhat poetically that the expedition will thus be “respecting nature and its constraints,” and will be “guided only by simplicity and lightness.”) To that end the two adventurers must reduce their equipment to a minimum, since they will have to carry it all themselves.

The film opens with drone footage of a training dive, high in what I presume to be the French Alps: two solitary figures are shown against a snow-covered slope; they are chipping away at ice covering a frozen lake. Eventually they don wetsuits and scuba gear, and slip beneath the lake’s frozen surface. There is further training in a swimming pool near Marseilles, and scientific tests in a high-tech hyperbaric chamber, to see how their bodies will handle the lower air pressures of high altitude, and prolonged immersion in 2 degree water; an aquatic “dry run,” if you will. There is one final bit of training before departure: a cave dive in a sump deep underground, in the Grotte de Baume des Anges.

In Argentina the pair are joined by a “small film crew” who will film the first part of the expedition: Guido and Fabien, the cameramen, “accompanied by three guides and their mules.” The adventurers themselves will carry 50 kilos of equipment each. They will haul this equipment using one-wheeled “chariots,” which they will pull behind them over very rugged terrain during the three weeks that it will take them to reach the lake.

There’s always a small amount of deception involved in documentary films such as this, which claim to document an authentic experience. This particular expedition is billed as “autonomous,” so it is best if the camera crew (and their mules) are kept out of sight as much as possible; ideally only the two protagonist-adventurers will be in-frame. And yet the crew’s cameras are our eyes; they are necessary if we are to feel as if we’d been there. And yet we can’t be there (nor can the film crew) if we are to believe that the adventurers are actually at risk. Such films are therefor unavoidably—and knowingly—creating an illusion, and what we watch is in essence a performance. We willingly suspend whatever disbelief we might have, and we forgive the occasional glimpses of the camera crew, since we want to believe that there is still wilderness in the world, and that there are still “adventurers” willing to take risks in order to strive for and achieve extreme goals on our behalf.

There is always gorgeous footage in mountain adventure films, showing corners of the planet that we are unlikely to see for ourselves, and Diving in a Drop has its fair share. There are the now-standard drone shots, with the camera perched high above as if offering a condor’s vantage point, with the adventurers, Fred and Seb, revealed as insignificant, ant-like figures painstakingly making their way across an immense landscape: “nature and all its constraints.”

The landscape is indeed dramatic: expanses of parched rocks and gravel stretching to the horizon, sculpted and weathered into towering hills and mountains, and decorated with thin green threads of vegetation which outline the few streams that drain this immense, high-altitude desert. Fierce winds sweep across the exposed slopes at night, buffeting the tent. Hail falls, followed by snow. The camera crew and their mules turn back at “the pass,” leaving Fred and Seb to forge on by themselves. Eventually the one-wheeled chariots are abandoned. Progress slows; they must now make two trips for every leg, rather than one, in order to advance their gear.

At the spot they'd planned as their “base camp,” Fred and Seb discover that there is no longer running water; the stream that had been there a year ago has been absorbed into the soil, since the glacier which had fed it has vanished. Worse: thanks to the soil’s chemical composition, all of the snow in the immediate vicinity is covered by a thick layer of yellow sulphur, and the pair must go elsewhere in search of potable water.

They ask themselves: if water is in such short supply, will the lake that they’d hoped to dive in still exist? Their drone reveals that the lake Fred dove in the previous year has disappeared, and the higher lake is likely to have disappeared as well. They’ve lugged their scuba gear this far (and the film needs closure), so they need to dive somewhere to save the expedition from failure. At lower altitude they find a pair of lakes, one blood-red, the other one a suspect shade of blue. Is it worth the health risk to immerse themselves in liquids that are perhaps closer to chemical baths than to drinkable water? A few curlews spotted foraging at the blue lake’s edge persuades them. “We’ll dive into that one.”

Gearing up (the wetsuits; the scuba gear) on the morning of the dive, they send off one last drone flight, and set up cameras to record the climactic act, before submerging themselves into a body of water which must be less than a meter at its deepest point. Immersed, they find signs of aquatic life, sufficient for the narrator to bring the expedition to a poetic close:

Solitude was only an illusion. All of a sudden the desert populates itself. Beings from prehistoric times have made a home out of this glacial oasis. These minuscule animals create the link between humans and the hostile environment. Do they realize that they carry a message? The marvellous hope of the living.[...] The success of the expedition is the wonder in the face of this burst of life and the emotional feeling that it’s the same link that goes through and unites all living things. It’s the joy of feeling alive. And the recognition that we’re never alone, wherever we are.

Yes, it’s an upbeat closure, but it feels to me as if an opportunity has been missed. Would it not have been more meaningful to reflect on the disappearance of the glaciers, and their associated lakes? If so much water has vanished in just one year, what is the likely future for these “minuscule creatures” who created that precious link between “humans and the hostile environment”? Not a happy future, I think.

Diving in a Drop has one more in-theatre screening at WFF, on Saturday, December 2 at 3:30 pm. It can also be watched online on Monday, December 4. See the festival page for more information on the film, and to purchase tickets. Watch the film’s (French-language, unsubtitled) trailer here.



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