KAILUA-KONA — Legendary freediver Jacques Mayol could dive hundreds of feet in one, single breath and was fascinated with dolphins and the mysteries of life under the ocean.
His life was the inspiration behind the 1988 French cult film “The Big Blue” and now his legacy continues to live on as the subject of the documentary “Dolphin Man.”
Directed by Lefteris Charitos, “Dolphin Man” will be screened for the first time in Hawaii at Aloha Theatre on Friday to coincide with the 2018 Hawaii Cup of Freediving this weekend, the United States Freediving Federation’s first national championship.
Those that knew Mayol would describe him as larger than life, and Charitos said that was his driving force behind creating the film. As Charitos’ first feature-length film, “Dolphin Man” was the most ambitious project the director has taken on to date.
“This was a completely different film from anything I’ve ever done,” Charitos said. “It was a big production, and it was a big story to tell. At the same time, working and traveling to different countries made it completely different from anything I’ve ever done before. It was like going from a 3 to a 10.”
Almost three years in the making, Charitos strived to make “Dolphin Man” a true documentary that feels like fiction. Part of that surrealist element is the addition of the narrator Jean-Marc Barr, who portrayed Mayol in the Luc Besson directed film “The Big Blue.” Barr was able to first experience a piece of freediving while playing Mayol.
“It was a wonderful experience. We trained for one month before actually shooting the underwater stuff, which we shot first. We gradually went from 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 and 35 meters so we could shoot in different lights and give the impression of going down very deep. We would shoot in the mornings, we would shoot in the high noon and then shoot in the evenings to get the different tones of blue and black,” Barr said. “It was an experience that changes your life. No one knew that is was going to be a success. In fact, when the film came out at Cannes, it was obliterated by the press. But all of a sudden people were lining up around the block to see the film and in France it was a huge hit.”
Three decades later, Barr was contacted by Charitos because of his connection to Mayol.
“Jacques had come on the set two or three times when we were shooting. Great man. A guy who after 40 decided to follow his passion and left everything,” Barr said. “He sort of put his finger on the fountain of youth because he was still a young man even at 65, 70.”
Barr said his motivation for narrating “Dolphin Man” came from a desire to give a proper tribute to the freediving legend after “The Big Blue” became such a hit.
“Three or four years after the film became popular, a horrible thing happened. Because of the success, when people talked about Jacques Mayol, they saw me,” Barr said. “I was just an image and he was the real thing. I was really pleased that this great director did this film because it kind of puts things in their authentic place.
“The real reason I wanted to do it was to to make things straight again. I replaced this guy’s identity through an image and I want to make sure that the people know that the guy was real and was much more interesting than what I played.”
More than just a man
While the film is being screened in Kona as a celebration of this weekend’s freediving event, the many players behind “Dolphin Man” want the audience to connect with more than just Mayol’s story and the novelty of freediving.
“The bigger side of Jacques is — hence the name ‘Dolphin Man’ — he was doing a lot of research,” USFF founder and president Jeremy Stephan said. “Marine research and how the body reacts and is affected underwater. He was doing a lot of conservation and preservation projects for marine life and for dolphins and there was another world of Jacques Mayol that not everybody knew. …There were so many aspects to him that this film brings to life.”
Charitos said the film plays on both the philosophical side of Jacques Mayol’s freediving and the conservation of nature, which has increasingly become a concern in the last decade due to global warming and the amount of plastic and other non-biodegradable material found in the world’s ocean. Barr also voiced his support of the Mayol and the film’s efforts to save the ocean.
“Thirty or 40 years ago, the ocean was prohibited territory,” Barr said. “Freediving puts us into a state where all of a sudden we realize how important and vital it is to save it, be a part of it and not destroy it. And I think that’s the real message. Thirty or 40 years ago that message was cute; today it is fundamental.”
While the people on Hawaii Island often see the immediate impacts of pollution in the water surrounding their home, Charitos hopes the film’s message resonates with everyone.
“I think overall there’s a big sense of the sea. And I was trying to think what it is that unites so many different countries around the world, and why Japanese and Canadians and French men like the same movie, and I think it comes down to the sea,” Charitos said. “We all share that, it’s in all of us.”
Inspiring future generations
A freediver like his father was, Jean-Jacques Mayol knows all about the intrigue and mystery that surrounds freediving.
“It has little to do with depth and time,” Jean-Jacques Mayol said.
Jean-Jacques Mayol spends his time trying to teach how freediving helps people to connect with nature, the same philosophy his father held.
“They have to understand that they come from the sea, that they’re very aquatic, that they’re made from water down to a cellular level,” Jean-Jacques Mayol said. “It’s not them versus the water, to conquer and get over their fears. It’s a homecoming.”
Stephan compared the two different diving techniques as different sides of technology — analog versus digital. Scuba diving, with its heavy equipment and constant need for monitoring, as the analog, and freediving as the streamlined, digital side of underwater movement.
“You become one with water, because you’re doing something that is very natural, which is embracing this environment. It’s a world between two breaths,” Stephan said. “You put yourself into a meditative state. You’re relaxed and you’re diving down, and you’re just being fluid and free with the water. You don’t have to worry about moving around with all this equipment.”
Stephan hopes the audience in Kona sees this connection through “Dolphin Man” and get inspired to try something different.
“I want to make people understand, about the U.S. Freediving Federation or freediving in general, a lot of people think it’s scary,” Stephan said. “I want to inspire people. I want people to look at this and say ‘I want to try that.’ That’s what I hope — between the film, other efforts that we do and the competitions — I want people to become aware of something they had never thought of before and say they want to try it.”
Barr also sees “Dolphin Man” as a source of inspiration to begin freediving. After diving deep into Jacques Mayol’s life, first by playing the character and now narrating his life, Barr believes the audiences in Kona can find the same love of freediving the actor has now.
“I think once you see the real man, the passion of what diving is, especially freediving, it becomes much more accessible,” Barr said. “He inspired freediving, just like Enzo Maiorca, and if you dive there is something that happens sensually and spiritually in your mind and in your soul. It’s almost like being dead when you’re diving, because you’re holding your breath and you’re staying down there a long time.
“And there’s something that happens where you get in touch with your own insignificance and you become just part of the elements. And I think that message through Jacques Mayol is much bigger and much more credible.”
Life with the dolphins
In 1983, Jacques Mayol published “L’Homo Delphinus – The Dolphin Within Man,” which chronicles his and humanities’ relationship with the aquatic creatures. Dolphins even played a part in Barr’s experiences with Jacques Mayol while filming “The Big Blue.”
“The best experience was when I was working with the dolphins in the island of St. John in the Caribbean. For one week, I had the chance of living in a bungalow on the island and driving to the other side. There were three dolphins, and for one week I was just there to play with the dolphins,” Barr said. “One night, there was a party and I got high and I was drinking and at 2 o’clock in the morning I went diving. All of a sudden one of the dolphins came up to me and rubbed up against me and gave me his dorsal fin and took me all around the bay. You can’t ask for a better experience with nature than that.”
Jacques Mayol’s fascination with dolphins is the inspiration for the new documentary’s name, and still inspires his son and other freedivers.
“Now I see the last couple of years that a lot of these champions and freedivers are moving to be ambassadors, like the dolphins are. Ambassadors of the sea,” Jean-Jacques Mayol said. “Like my father was saying — if we could be more like dolphins, then we could have a better world.”
Info: Tickets for ‘Dolphin Man’ at 7 p.m. Friday can be purchased for $12.50 at apachawaii.org. Funds raised will help support Team America at the 2018 CMAS World Freediving Championships in Kas, Turkey, this October. As of Wednesday, “Dolphin Man” will still be showing Friday despite Hurricane Lane.