By Elle Hunt
Jacques-Yves Cousteau was a pioneer of underwater researchThomas J. Abercrombie/National Geographic
BY HIS own account, the film-maker and ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau hated it when his work was labelled as “documentary”. “That means a lecture by a guy who knows more than you,” he wrote. “Our films are true adventure films.”
Becoming Cousteau, a new documentary about Cousteau’s life and legacy, captures that spirit without getting too swept away. The result is a captivating portrait of a complicated man who was as well-known and widely beloved as David Attenborough is today.
Veteran film-maker Liz Garbus was first approached by National Geographic to make a film about Cousteau’s life in 2015. It was only in 2019, after years of negotiation, that Garbus was granted exclusive access to the Cousteau Society Archives, controlled by Cousteau’s widow Francine. Their children, Pierre-Yves and Diane, have co-producer credits on the film, but in Garbus’s hands, the involvement of those closest to Cousteau serves as an asset, not a liability, helping to paint a picture of a true original.
Cousteau was a born explorer, with an insatiable drive to see the world and a talent for sharing what he found. He started making films aged 13 and, at 20, entered the French naval academy with a view to becoming a pilot. When his career in aviation was cut short by a car accident, he began swimming on the French Riviera to help heal his broken bones, before becoming fascinated with freediving.
Soon, he became frustrated with the limits of freediving and, with his naval colleagues, experimented with breathing apparatus that would allow them to spend more time underwater. This led to the invention of the aqualung, which made diving more accessible for both scientists and amateur explorers.
Archival footage captures the fear and thrill of those early dives, which weren’t so far removed from space exploration at the time in terms of the risks involved.
In 1947, diver Maurice Fargues died while attempting to set a new depth record with the aqualung. This only focused Cousteau’s mind further. Fargues’s death must not be in vain, Cousteau said.
“Cousteau abandoned his dream of undersea civilisations to fight for oceans that could support life at all”
His ultimate goal, at that time, was utopian, “paving the way to a time when human beings will live continuously under the sea“. For Cousteau, diving proposed a route to liberation not just for him, but for all humankind, “to eliminate all ties to the surface”.
The spirit of this mission was embodied by his research vessel the Calypso, spoken of by its crew as something between a safe haven and a spiritual calling. “This escape would not exist if people were happy on land,” says one sailor. Footage of life onboard from the mid-1950s through the 60s gave ocean exploration a certain glamour. It is no wonder Cousteau’s work inspired a generation of film-makers and seafarers.
While celebrating Cousteau’s many triumphs, Garbus also engages with his life and work through a contemporary lens, interrogating the cowboyish tactics – such as blast-fishing with dynamite and slaughtering sharks as sailors’ revenge – that were in line with the pioneering spirit of the time, but are antithetical to conservation interests today.
In 1953, the Calypso – only ever one cheque short of financial ruin – even accepted funding to search for oil in the Persian Gulf. “We just didn’t know any better at the time,” says a crew member.
Cousteau himself was quick to change course. By the 1970s he had stopped showing his early films, saying “the mentality has changed”, and threw himself into lobbying for protection of the marine ecosystem.
After documenting two decades of decline, he abandoned his dream of an under-the-sea civilisation to fight to ensure that oceans could support life at all. His series – “no more about dealing with beautiful little fishes, [but] the fate of mankind” – was dropped from US television for being doomsaying.
Cousteau’s warnings for future generations are even harder to hear now, after 50-plus years of inaction. But his story inspires hope about what can be achieved by one person with a vision.
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