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Catching up with Underwater Cameraman Nays Baghai

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Underwater Cameraman Nays Baghai
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Notable 20th-century jazz bassist and composer Charles Mingus said: “Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple – that’s creativity.” It’s a quote that resonates deeply with underwater cameraman, independent film-maker and musician Nays Baghai, who might best be described as a ‘hybrid incarnate’.

Group of Hammer-head Sharks
Group of hammer-head sharks

A Diving Enthusiast and Underwater Filmmaker

His impressive body of water-themed work makes difficult and complex journeys accessible through his award-winning documentary short and feature-length films.

Born in Toronto to parents of Persian heritage, Nays was certified in scuba diving and freediving as a teenager. Based in Sydney, he has also recently ventured into rebreather diving to enable longer bottom times for filming in deeper, overhead sites and for silence when filming larger animals. He cites The Blue Planet as the catalyst behind not only his love for rebreathers, but his passion for filming underwater as a whole.

Scuba Diver Nays Baghai recording underwater
Nays Baghai recording underwater

A Talented Multi-faceted Professional

Nays writes, directs and edits films that explore the challenges and triumphs of real-life characters, particularly telling stories of experienced divers in extreme environments. He’s an accomplished underwater cinematographer and photographer, graphic designer and videographer with an extensive premium client list, including Rolex, Tourism Australia, Sony, Telstra, Cressi and SBS.

Up-close image of a sea horse
Up-close image of a Sea Horse

Running Cloud Productions and Multi-modalities

A graduate of Australia’s national film school AFTRS, Nays runs his own film company, Running Cloud Productions, which is founded on the principles of depth, independence and precision. A master of multi-modalities, there’s an intrinsic interplay between Nays’ film-making, diving and musicality. The yin-yang interplay between still photography and cinematography is stylistically distinctive in Nays’ films, where many of the sequences have the resonance and potency of fine art stills.

Red Octopus swimming near the bottom of the ocean
Octopus swimming near the sea floor

A Passion for Music

After a decade of playing in various ensembles and learning over a dozen instruments, Nays now switches between piano, guitar and bass for two hours each day, essentially as a form of ‘flow state’ mediation: “The bass is my favourite because it’s the bridge between the rhythm and the harmony. You are pretty much in charge of the music, but you’re not flashy and up at the front. It’s emblematic of what I like to do in my professional life. I like being in control and driving things, but I don’t like showing off. I like being in the background, subtly laying the groundwork.”

Accolades and Descent

 Kiki Bosch Free Diving In Wet Suit
Kiki Bosch free diving in her wet suit

Nays’ award-winning directorial debut, Descent, premiered at the Sydney Film Festival. He received the 2020 Documentary Australia Foundation Award for Best Australian Documentary (along with a $10,000 prize and Academy Award eligibility), adding to an impressive list of 20 prior awards for short film projects.

The 65-minute film feels more cinematic than a typical documentary, delivering a psychological portrait of Kiki Bosch, who freedives in icy water and beneath the ice without a wetsuit. In part, her cold-water diving is a form of therapy in the aftermath of sexual assault.

“Whenever I’m looking to develop a story, the first question I ask is, ‘What motivates someone to do what they do?’ In the diving world, there are so many freedivers and tech divers that go to mind-boggling extremes and push the limits of human potential. That, to me, is the most fertile creative ecosystem to investigate human psychology.”

Kiki Bosch standing in freezing waters before free diving
Kiki Bosch standing in freezing waters before free diving

The Making of Descent

In Descent, fresh and archival footage are woven seamlessly to convey Kiki’s inner and physical journeys with a fine balance of objectivity and empathy. “As a storyteller, I like telling stories cleanly and to the point – without gratuity or agenda. I try to be as lean and direct as I can.”

Shark swimming through a school of fish
Shark swimming through school of fish

Challenges in Filming and Audience Reactions

Nays tells stories of people navigating significant mental and physical challenges while simultaneously embracing production challenges as an integral part of the film-making process. “We navigated all sorts of challenges during the 17 months it took to bring Descent to life. Without doubt, the most logistically complex, demanding location was New Zealand. We had to contend with 10°C degree waters and a dense halocline with variable visibility. 

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“That alone is challenging, but adding waves, limited dive times and having to film at 15m deep increases the difficulty tenfold. Without the luxury of wireless communications, my job as a director required me to dive up and down in that water column many times a day. That definitely wreaked havoc on my sinuses and stamina. Because I only had a 5mm open cell wetsuit, I was borderline hypothermic by the end of the shoot.”

Due to Covid restrictions at the time of release, the only opportunity Nays had to view Descent with a live audience came nearly a year later, during a charity screening for survivors of rape and domestic violence who reacted positively to the film’s treatment of the sensitive subject matter: “Making Descent taught me the value of telling stories that are timeless because of how they touch on universal themes. You have to ask yourself – if someone watched my film 1,000 years from now, would it still hold up then?”

Upcoming Project: Jill Heinerth: Room To Breathe

Shark swimming on rocks on ocean floor
Shark swimming on rocks near sea floor

Nay’s current feature documentary project is titled Jill Heinerth: Room To Breathe, and is slated for a September 2023 release. This film tells the life story of the author of the bestseller, Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver. Nays enrolled in a cave-diving course specifically for this production: “It’s the most fun I have ever had on a project, in both the diving and film world so far”. Nays Baghai

To learn more about Nays and his projects, check out his website Nays Baghai, or his Instagram profile @naysbaghai.

Photographs courtesy of Nays Baghai


This article was originally published in Scuba Diver ANZ #51.

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