The Spool / Austin Film Festival 2020
AFF Fest: “Dave Not Coming Back” is a poignant look at loss and risk
Jonah Malek's documentary proves captivating for divers and non-divers alike.

Jonah Malek’s documentary proves captivating for divers and non-divers alike.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Austin Film Festival.)

Sometimes, what you don’t see on screen can be just as effective as what you do. In the case of the documentary Dave Not Coming Back, the absence of the titular Dave proves immediately affecting. The film’s various interview subjects don’t make any effort to conceal the fact that Dave is no longer alive. More than a decade after his demise, the haunting tone of Jonah Malek’s Dave Not Coming Back proves he can still leave an impact.

Who is Dave? David Shaw was a scuba-diver who was always up for dangerous missions to untraveled depths of the planet. “It’s like the last frontier, isn’t it?” one fellow scuba diver observes in voice-over. “We know more about space than we do the deeper parts of our Earth.” Exploration fueled Dave’s desire to do the impossible, but he was no adrenaline junkie. Camcorder footage of Dave interacting with his fellow scuba-divers in between missions shows an affable soul, not a hollow thrill-seeker.

In 2005, Dave planned to use his diving skills for an extraordinary mission: traveling 270 meters below the Earth’s surface to retrieve the body of Deon Dryer, a scuba diver who died ten years prior during an expedition to South Africa’s 300-meter deep sinkhole Bushman’s Hole. It seemed impossible for anyone to bring his body back up, but Dave and his crew planned to do just that. In the process of trying to retrieve Dryer, though, Dave perishes just as he was trying to attach Dryer’s corpse to his body.

Dave’s story is told primarily through the eyes of Don, a fellow diver who considered him to be the brother he never had. To tell this story properly, Dave Not Coming Back employs camcorder footage captured of the mission itself, as well as the days directly preceding it. To say these videos are disturbing is an understatement; you can see Dave’s crew on the surface reacting in real-time to the news that their friend isn’t coming back. 

It’s all the more unnerving, due to the composure everyone has to hold in order to help retrieve the other divers still in the water. There’s no time for extreme displays of emotion; everyone has to keep their cool to make sure more divers don’t end up like Dave. It’s a totally understandable move, but one that lends an extra sense of unease. They’re all keeping their emotions bottled up inside but there’s an unspoken sense of woe wafting over everyone. The ramshackle nature of the footage itself adds an extra sense of rawness to these emotions.

The modern-day re-enactments burst with vibrant details that let you absorb the beauty of these underwater domains.

Much like Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, Dave Not Coming Back recreates impactful experiences to create emotional closure, Don returning to the Bushman’s Hole to shoot re-enactments of his experiences underwater. Late in the film, Don claims this documentary will allow him “to tell this story correctly”; no longer will news stations hungry for a sensational headline dictate the story of Dave’s final moments. Now, Don can make sure his friend’s demise is handled properly.

This mission lends a sense of urgency to the filmed recreations, which are captured in stunningly-realized camerawork. When Don went on his final dive a decade prior, he also had a camera attached to his helmet.  The differences in video quality between the two cameras don’t just seem removed by a decade. They feel like they’re from different centuries. The modern-day re-enactments burst with vibrant details that let you absorb the beauty of these underwater domains.

Though never intentional, the difference in video quality feels appropriate for the two eras Dave Not Coming Back is chronicling. The rough and tumble quality of the camcorder footage matches the mood of every diver on the day Dave never returned to the surface. By contrast, the pristine nature of the cameras used for the re-enactments reinforce the controlled nature of this filming. Now, Don and Malek can bring visual and emotional clarity to an event long shrouded in tragedy.

Their exploration of this tragic day proves easily digestible even for total novices to the world of diving. Concise verbal explanations from Don and other members of Dave’s diving crew, as well as handy visual aids, make the specific hazards facing divers easy to understand. Thankfully, Dave Not Coming Back doesn’t get bogged down in this terminology. This is no insular exercise appealing only to die-hard divers; it’s a much more universally engaging exercise than that.

In his life, David Shaw wasn’t a God among men. As noted in this documentary, “nobody became a hero” during the process of digging up Deon Dryer’s body, not even the only man who lost his life on the mission. Malek doesn’t paint a hagiography of David Shaw, instead crafting a more nuanced portrait of Dave as a human being. He may have dived to uncharted territory, but at the end of the day he was still just a man. Sadly, that man is now gone. But Dave Not Coming Back ensures that David Shaw’s story will live on in a captivating fashion.

Dave Not Coming Back Trailer: