Dave Not Coming Back

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Dave Not Coming Back
"This is an intensely personal film."

Dave Shaw and Don Shirley were already legends in the scuba diving community when, in October 2004, they decided to explore South Africa's Boesmansgat cave, breaking a world record in the process because of how deep they went. What they didn't expect was to find a dead body at the bottom - that of Deon Dreyer, another celebrated diver, who had disappeared there ten years previously. Partly out of concern for his family and partly, they admitted, because they felt drawn to the challenge, they arranged to return to the cave in January of the following year to try and retrieve it. It was an expedition which they knew would be dangerous and they approached it with extreme care, but nevertheless, Dave lost his life in the process.

Much of this film is comprised of footage from the documentary which Dave and Don planned to make about the retrieval. It's framed by Don talking about his friend and about what diving meant to them both, with contributions from others in the ten person team that set out to recover Dreyer's body. There's a strong contrast between the positive approach in the older material, which is focused on problem solving and practical details, and the sorrowful, contemplative quality of what has been recorded since. Even in the early material, however, a good deal of attention is paid to the risks of this sort of diving. If you don't want to die on a dive, we are told, the critical point for deciding it's too dangerous is before you get into the water.

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Why do people take on this dangerous activity? That's something that Don and his colleagues seem to be trying to figure out about themselves, all keenly aware that they could have found themselves in Dave's position. They acknowledge that a lot of it is about ego and the desire to do what others can't (sometime women's world record holder Verna Van Schaik is part of the team). There's the thrill of being right on the edge of disaster that attracts many people to gambling. There's also the incomparable experience of being alone and almost weightless in the dark, which is notorious for its ability to hypnotise divers. Dave, however, did not fall victim to that. As well as exploring the set-up for the dive and the feelings of those involved, the film tries to resolve the mystery of exactly what did go wrong down there.

This is an intensely personal film, a tribute to a widely respected diver from those who loved him. As such, it takes a narrow perspective and lacks the self awareness that might have made it appeal to a wider audience. This is an understandable failing and, indeed, is unlikely to have been a big concern for the team behind it. There's enough detail about the dive itself to make it interesting to other scuba enthusiasts and those who dive for a living, plus a chance to learn more about some of the big names in the sport. Newcomers to diving may well benefit from some of the practical tips passed along, as well as from the strong safety message.

We don't get to learn much about Dave beyond what he did in the water, but it's clear how much he meant to those around him; likewise the importance to the Dreyer family of the recovery of Deon's body. Though it never quite grasps the additional dimension it's aiming for, there are moments when the film captures something of the existential wonder that deep diving can inspire, and it's these that give outsiders a real appreciation of the central experience.

Reviewed on: 14 Nov 2020
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Two high level scuba-divers and long-time friends, Don and Dave, broke a world record for depth in the Boesmansgat cave in South Africa - and found a dead body.

Director: Jonah Malak

Writer: Jonah Malak

Starring: Don Shirley, Mark Andrews, Deon Dreyer, Theo Dreyer

Year: 2020

Runtime: 92 minutes

Country: Canada

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