Interview: world freediving champion and film director Julie Gautier

Few people experience the ocean like a freediver. Unencumbered by the constraints of breathing apparatus, freedivers push their bodies to the absolute limit in order to feel complete freedom and relaxation. Deep water diving is an ephemeral experience, an extreme way to see the ocean as its inhabitants do.

Julie Gautier is a French freediving champion and breath hold film director who created the short film ‘One Breath Around the World’ with her partner and fellow world-record holder Guillaume Néry. She is also one of the inspiring speakers at this year’s Transition Forum in Monaco, and she spoke to us about her passion for telling underwater stories.

Julie Gaultier

Julie, what originally drew you to the water? 

I was born on a small French Island in the middle of the Indian Ocean called La Réunion. I spent my childhood going to the beach and very early leaned to spearfish with my father. So water had always been part of my life, it is my second nature.

Why did you decide to make a career out of free-diving?

As I spent so much time in the water I was quite talented at deep freediving. It was a way to challenge myself and to prove to the world my capacities.

How long can you hold your breath for? 

When I was training I could hold my breath for up to six minutes and reach a depth of 72 metres with a monofin.

Why did you make the transition from world-champion freediver to film director? 

When I understood that going deep was more of an ego issue than a personal fulfilment, I started to ask myself what this talent could be useful for. It is actually Guillaume that found it for me. He asked me to film him in the Bahamas and we made our first film ‘Free Fall’. At that time I had never touched a camera in my life and didn’t know anything about it. But after the success of that film I understood that I was good at telling underwater stories. So I started writing and directing more projects.

In the film AMA, you are dancing at the bottom of a large pool and it seems so otherworldly. What was it like creating and featuring in that film?

I shot AMA in Italy at Y40 The deep Joy, a private pool made for freedivers. It is the deepest pool in the world at 40 metres. I love this place, I feel at home there. It is filled with a 33°C crystal clear thermal water. When I discovered that pool one year before the shoot, I knew it was the perfect place to film it. The surrounding is just so unique and pure. It was perfect to tell the story I wanted to tell.

Julie Gautier wrote, directed and performed in the short film AMA

In ‘One Breath Around the World’, Guillaume takes us on a free diving journey from the coast of Nice through to Mauritius, Mexico, Japan, French Polynesia, the Philippines and Finland. Where did the idea for this film come from? 

One Breath was Guillaume’s idea. He loves exploration and he was dreaming of going to all of these different places. It took us a long time to figure out how to make a story around this journey. We finally decided to make it a dream-like odyssey witnessing the beauty of the underwater world.

To me, it almost feels like a Tim Burton film in its eerie fascination. From a production perspective, what did you want to achieve with that film? 

This film was, first of all, a family experience. We left Nice and made a world trip with our daughter in order to share with her this experience. We had no production, just the three of us and Franck Seguin, the photographer. It is really a personal project. We had no particular plan for the film. Like always, we wanted to share it with the world by putting it on the web for free.

There is a beautiful scene of Guillaume surrounded by sharks. Have either of you ever had any close encounters with sharks or other animals while in the water? 

We filmed the sharks in Fakarava in French Polynesia, a very famous place to encounter sharks. Unfortunately there were not as many as we expected. There are too many people there trying to experience these animals and the human presence, the noise of the boats, and the pollution make them leave. It is a pity. We have to be very careful and draw a limit between the need to protect the environment and our will to encounter sea life.

And then there is the incredible scene of Guillaume swimming with sperm whales sleeping vertically in the water. How were you able to be a part of that and capture it on film?

We spent six days looking for sperm whales and it is only on the last day that we had the chance to encounter them and be accepted by this group. It was a magical moment where we really felt that we were not disturbing them and that they were completely accepting of us. We spent more than two hours with them. In the end I could not film anymore. I was fascinated by the experience I was having. I think that the fact we are in breath hold, so without a tank, makes us more quiet and more aquatic. We look and move more like underwater creatures so it is easier for us to approach these animals.

Sperm whales sleeping in a scene from the short film ‘One Breath Around the World’

The cinematography in your films feels very organic, is this because you yourself are filming while freediving? 

Yes I think when you film on breath hold you become part of water. I film as I move in the water. Like a seal I feel the currents, I use my lungs as a ballast, I make no bubbles. It is pure freedom.

You make it look so relaxed and natural under the water, but in fact you have spoken about the tension and energy that you feel because you want to make the shot perfect. Tell us about that…

Yes, of course, when you film or you act you are very focussed on what you do, on the movement, on the necessity to be stable. It is the opposite of what you look for when you do competitive freediving where all your attention is on your sensations and on relaxing completely. Pure freediving is a mediation state, filming is a creative state.

Have you seen a change in the oceans since you began spearfishing at 11 years of age? 

Yes, there are less and less fish in the sea. Since the recent campaign we made for SeaShepherd, I made the decision to stop eating fish. What is happening is too dramatic. Eating meat, fish or mammals is too easy now so people do it every day, sometimes three times a day. There is no way the planet can feed so many carnivores. If I want to eat a fish I will go to the ocean, and feel I deserve it.