A man plunges into the depths of the ocean wearing an eye mask. A cylinder strapped to his back. We see him place a strange-looking object on the ocean-bed. Before we have time to wonder what it is, we see a flash. Kaboom!
“Commercial fishing with dynamite is illegal, an act of vandalism. But for the purpose of scientific study, it is the only method for taking a census of all the varieties in an area”, says a firm heavily accented voiceover, as dozens of fish sink to the bottom. A man goes back into the water, grabs a dead fish, his fingers shoved far into its bleeding gills. Coming back to the surface, his bag is filled with many open-mouthed creatures, cold and stiff. He empties them onto the sand.
This is a scene from the 1956 Oscar-winning film The Silent World. Regarded as the first documentary on oceanic life in full colour. Co-directed by Jacques-Yves Cousteau, it is an adaptation of his 1953 book.
Sounds pretty horrifying, doesn’t it? What if I say this man who set off a bomb in the middle of the ocean, eventually went on to become one of the first advocates for underwater life? How could someone who did something that would be considered unforgivable in today’s world, possibly even cancellable, also be someone famously known as the world’s ambassador of the oceans? Or an early guardian of the aquatic voiceless – what he believed to be the silent world?
Liz Garbus, the two-time Academy Award-nominated filmmaker has recently released a film about him, Becoming Cousteau. From National Geographic Documentary Films, this 2021 American documentary uses a lot of the real footage originally shot by Cousteau. It takes a close look at his undersea life, touching upon the great many firsts.
From co-inventing the first-ever scuba gear to being the one to make underwater filming possible, the French icon did a lot for someone with no scientific degree. The trailer of Becoming Cousteau calls him an adventurer, innovator and legendary filmmaker. Yet could he be boxed into either of those three categories?
An AP News article mentions how one of Cousteau’s editors found it so difficult to label him, he finally went with, “A man looking at the future.” Perhaps it was as simple as that for Cousteau. ‘‘We go see it for ourselves”, says the 2021 trailer referring to his life motto. Wanting to dive deeper, he simply co-created a device that would allow him to do so (the Aqualung, the world’s first self-contained underwater breathing apparatus). Wanting to show the world what magic lies within the blue depths, he authored over fifty books and created waterproof filming equipment. “You only protect what you love”, says Cousteau’s voice in the trailer of Becoming Cousteau.
Or perhaps his own unwillingness to take himself seriously was what attracted people to him. “I am not interested in myself, I am interested in the world outside me”, says the scrawny man in a red beanie, who spent 68 years of his life quite casually changing the face of underwater exploration.
Being the first to film the oceanic wonders earned him a Cannes Film-Festival win, two Academy Awards, and a couple of long-running television shows. The shows documented his adventures across the world carried out in his special vessel, the Calypso. It was during these long expeditions that Cousteau realised the urgent need to protect marine life.
He started the Cousteau Society in 1973. It is still working today to set up protected areas for endangered species, under Francine, the second wife of Jacques Cousteau. His children and grandchildren as part of the society, are involved in constantly improving the explorer’s inventions. Taking forward the work he started.
Cousteau soon became an environmentalist over everything else, laying the foundation for ocean conservation. He even made headlines when he spoke passionately about the warming oceans and the rights of future generations to live on an uncontaminated planet at the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit.
The 2021 biopic truly comes full circle in terms of showing Cousteau as someone who started off killing marine life to battling for their protection. While he followed unethical practices in his early days of filming, he was unafraid to retain the clips. He was willing to call himself out on his mistakes and wanted the world to do so too. An important lesson for us to learn as a generation, so reluctant to display our own shortcomings.
Most importantly, Cousteau was a man completely at peace in water from a very early age. He thrived in the depths of the ocean. As a review by Variety suggests, Cousteau’s life outside the sea was not exactly a smooth ride. His love for the sea meant his family life suffered. A few years after graduating from the naval academy, he had to give it all up after a near-fatal automobile accident. One that broke both his arms. Hitting rock bottom, he was advised to do swimming exercises to nurse himself back to health. That journey of recovery recharged his seafaring passion.
Makes me wonder – how many lives were on a pause during the pandemic? How many people felt paralysed and unmotivated in the midst of isolation? As the world takes small steps towards normalcy in 2021, perhaps Liz Garbus, through her documentary, wants us to draw inspiration from this legend who was determined to make a comeback, and boy, what a comeback it was!
Featured Image credit: Combined Military Service Digital
Meera Anand is a third year undergraduate student of Ashoka University pursuing a major in Economics and a minor in Media Studies.
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