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Love and Death, Underwater

Alison Ellwood's No Limits premieres tonight on ESPN
Jessi Cape, 2:30pm, Tue. Jul. 23, 2013

The metaphors and allusions write themselves, but the truth of freediver Audrey Mestre’s life and tragic death is tangled in a web of passion and secrets.

While some parts of her story will likely forever reside at the bottom of the ocean, No Limits offers a balanced portrayal of the details surrounding Mestre’s fateful No Limits (NLT) Freediving Record attempt in October 2002.

The fourth installment of ESPN’s Nine for IX documentary film series (by female filmmakers, about women in sports), No Limits shows tonight, Tuesday, July 23, at 7pm. The film sheds light on the careers and union of young, talented, and beautiful Audrey Mestre and her husband, Francisco “Pipin” Ferreras – a Cuban native and fellow record-breaking freediver – and the aftermath of a dive gone horribly wrong. Alison Ellwood (Magic Trip: Ken Kesey's Search for a Kool Place) directs this gripping film with a no-holds-barred approach, one fitting for a community dedicated to toeing the line between the human capacity for physical and mental exertion and certain death.

Perhaps Alison Ellwood’s diverse filmography (she also produced Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson) yielded the necessary credentials to participate in the ESPN series, but she was initially far from sold on the idea of making a film about the very painful, very public dive day and all its world-famous controversy. “I knew nothing about it before I began this film … It was a long process; the free diving community is very divided about Audrey's death. It took a long time for me to convince some of the Pipin camp folks to agree to be interviewed. But I said, 'Look, as a journalist, it's not my job to determine who did this.’ I'm not a detective (although it's sort of a detective story). My job is to lay out the facts as they happened and get as many witnesses to give testimony to what happened. At the end of the day, it's a very tragic accident that I certainly think could've been avoided, but again, it's not for me to say who is responsible,” she explained.

In fact, after an internet search revealed particularly disturbing video footage of the dive and minutes leading up to Mestre’s death, Ellwood was even less convinced. “I kept saying I didn't want to do the film, until I found [Tanya Streeter] online. She, too, was kind of reticent about reliving all of this. It's very painful material for all of them. But she finally she said that she and Paul [her husband and coach] … knew that ultimately someone would make the film, and here they have an opportunity to let this film, their story, be told by someone that they hoped they could trust. Building that trust took some time. I'm pleased to say that everyone who has participated in the film - I think - feels that in no way that trust was ever breached. I think we present both sides of the story quite fairly, which was a challenge.”

Ellwood ultimately chose to use some of the footage in the film’s most intrinsically climactic moment, though her reasoning and stylistic choices reflect respectful intent. “For Tanya's side [of the story], I wanted to do the split screen initially to give a sense of how long she's underwater. You know, you can try to hold your breath for three and a half minutes and you realize how intense that is and what they're going through. And then with Audrey's [dive] - the footage, believe it or not, was less disturbing than the photographs. A lot of people photographed what happened and some of those were really, really disturbing, so I didn't want to use those. I wanted to keep the split screen going just so you could get a sense of what the people were feeling and thinking as the minutes and seconds were ticking by. So that was a stylistic choice I made very early on, actually. I shot some of the interviews specifically about Audrey's side, and when we would record. I would tell my entire crew to just look down, 'Don't make eye contact with the subject,' and they inevitably looked down as well, so there were those moments I would use where people were just looking down kind of in disbelief at what actually transpired.”

In addition to the sheer insanity of diving to these great oceanic depths, with no breathing apparatus, and only minimal gear, the extreme sport of freediving is particularly interesting because of the gender dynamics that do not necessarily translate to other sports. The harsh metabolic realities of traveling, on a single breath, to several hundred feet below the surface of the water generally defy gender differentials, with world records bouncing between categories. Tanya Streeter, now an Austin resident, broke the men’s and women’s overall world record freedive, thereby prompting Pipin to set in motion Audrey’s fatal attempt to break the record. Her interview aids an unfamiliar audience in understanding specific differences between Streeter’s record August 2002 dive to 160 meters vs. Audrey’s attempt to break 171 meters months later.

Of the correlation between the film, the sport, and modern gender roles, Ellwood said, “We had a longer version of the film that includes all this at one point, but it ultimately had to go, which was too bad. People believed for a while that women could dive deeper and hold their breath longer because they had breasts. And then people realized it had nothing to do with it. In fact, men actually do have a slight edge on women in that their lung capacity is generally larger than women’s, but it's not across the board. Tanya, and Audrey presumably, have really large lung capacity. But the most interesting thing to me is that what really ends up defining whether someone can do this sport is their mental capacity. You just literally cannot let a single thought enter your mind during this process or you run the risk of elevating your heart rate. You just have to be so intensely focused on only what you're doing. … It’s a zen sort of approach to this. It’s not something that I personally want to try,” says the director.

In addition to the specific physical requirements of endurance and excellence, the personality qualifications a freediver must possess categorically define many of the characters of the No Limits story. Audrey overcame scoliosis as a teen, and Pipin suffered his own set of hardships, joining the two in perseverance and a profound love for the ocean’s restorative abyss.

Ellwood’s portrayal of Pipin screens comes off as determined to appear fair, for credibility’s sake, despite his potentially questionable actions on the fateful dive day. Whether anything will ever change in terms of finding out, definitively, on whom the blame really rests - if anyone at all - remains a mystery. Ellwood hesitated before saying: “I would suspect that we will never know anymore than we know now. It’s …There’s no way."

Of course, and inevitably, the potential for a narrative film hyper-focused on the love and obsession between husband and wife may be in the works. No Limits mentions that James Cameron is directing The Dive based on Pipin and Audrey's story. As a Hollywood narrative, with all the perceptions of love, beauty, and tragedy that entails, it may sharply contrast with Ellwood’s film, a documentary that largely suggests and supports the belief of possibly negligent undercurrents in play. Ellwood said, “I would suspect that they would be different, but I don’t know what the current state of that film is. That scene was shot nine years ago, when they were doing research for making the film, and nothing has happened with the film since then. So I don’t know if it's ever going to be made. Again, I don’t know. I haven’t been able to speak with Jim Cameron about it to know what his angle would be.” Internet rumors continue to swirl, and some hints of the film indicate it will be made, and that Martin Campbell (Casino Royale, Green Lantern) will direct Jason Statham (The Transporter, Redemption) as Pipin.

Woven throughout No Limits, however, is more than superhuman feats of endurance and bravery. The quirks of human nature, gender neutral or gender specific, and the intricacies of relationships in both personal and professional realms will forever remain fascinating. Ellwood’s experience playing an investigating presenter served as a reminder to herself to pay attention and assess risk. “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s,” she laughed. “When you're taking on something that’s that potentially dangerous, you just need to be sure that you really trust the people that are on your team.”


No Limits airs tonight, Tuesday, July 23, at 7pm on ESPN as part of the Nine for IX documentary series. Visit the ESPN website for complete details.

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