It is an old cliché that reality is stranger than fiction, and this was certainly the case for directors Hanna Björk Valsdóttir, Elín Hansdóttir, and Anna Rún Tryggvadóttir as they went about creating their latest project, ‘Dive: Rituals In Water.’ The documentary tells the story of Snorri Magnússon, a swim coach with an unconventional clientele: babies.
While most children learn to swim around age five or so, Snorri teaches infants as young as four months old. This may seem dangerous, but babies are born with the instinct to hold their breath underwater, meaning they have an innate ability to swim. Snorri’s teaching method involves singing to them, blowing on their faces, and then dunking them underwater. However, he never rushes their progress. He will also drum on his belly, splash in the water to a beat like a metronome, and move the babies above the surface to make them feel comfortable. It’s a surreal spectacle that translated to a beautiful film.
The inspiration for the documentary was Snorri himself. Elín and Anna Rún had children around the same time, and took their babies to Snorri’s swimming class. Together, along with Hanna, they met weekly, discussing how charismatic Snorri was, and how interesting it would be to make a film about his peculiar profession.
Soon after, the three talked to him about making the film. The end result is a film that explores the depths of human empathy in a surprisingly short run-time. “He works a lot with intuition, connecting with the child, watching the child, seeing the child’s response,” Elín says.
“And he has a special bond with the babies. You can see that,” adds Hanna.
A visual treat
The three filmmakers began the process nearly four years ago. From the onset, they were interested in the tactile aspects of water. However, the problem with filming in a pool is, for one thing, the water. Filming underwater isn’t as simple as just dunking the camera. To fix this, the three teamed up with cinematographer Bergsteinn Björgúlfsson, who not only worked with a crane in the pool, but also created some truly exquisite shots underwater by placing the camera in a weighted aquarium.
The other difficulty of filming in a pool is the sound quality, but the filmmakers used the echoic sounds of pools to their advantage. “By working with the sound, you can give the feeling of a baby’s experience. We can’t ask them, ‘what do you think of Snorri’s class?’ but we can imagine,” says Elín. They subsequently paired up with Björn Viktorsson, who was also the sound designer for ‘Rams’ and ‘White, White Day.’ With his expertise, they were able to tell a story partially from the point of view of a newborn.
The film premiered in the U.S. in March to critical acclaim, which is interesting because the most apprehensive couple in the film is American. Snorri’s technique of blowing on a baby’s face and then dunking them is widely applied now, but when he started in the early 1990s, it was a pioneering idea.
To this day, the teacher can be seen drumming on his belly, standing babies on the palm of his hand, holding them aloft like little emperors, and singing in the pool at Skálatún Development Home in Mosfellsbær. He is a remarkably unselfconscious man, adding to his remarkable charisma. The babies love him, and, it turns out, filmgoers do too.
‘Dive: Rituals in Water’ premieres in Reykjavík at Bíó Paradís on September 5th.
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