Hot Docs

Subterranean: The Ultimate High Is Underground

Hot Docs 2023

7 mins read

(Canada, 90 min.)
Dir. Francois-Xavier De Ruydts
Program: Canadian Spectrum (World Premiere)


Deep inside the Argo cave system on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, a team of cave explorers is making its way through a difficult passage known as the GLORP. It is treacherous terrain full of mud and narrow cervices, which one person compares it to “crawling into a digestive tube” of a person experiencing diarrhea. It is not for those of faint hearts or queasy stomachs. As the team wriggles face first through the sludge, grumbling every step of the way, knowing that they will eventually need to go out the same way they came in, one cannot help but question why people voluntarily spend their weekends in such places.  As we learn in Francois-Xavier De Ruydts’ Subterranean, the answer is a strange mixture of curiosity, passion, and the thrill of discovery.

The desire to be among the first to traverse in uncharted territory is one of the alluring factors that motivates hobbyist explorers such as Franck Tuot and Katie Graham. A leader of the Argo team, Tuot and his dedicated crew of spelunkers are eager to find evidence that the three caves–Glory ‘Ole, Resonance, and Arch–that make up the Argo system are connected. If so, that would make Argo the longest-known cave in Canada. Over at the Bisaro Anima cave in the Rocky Mountains, Katie Graham and her fellow cavers are determined to prove that they are exploring the deepest cave in Canada.  It’s a goal, which will come with its fair share of unexpected, and potentially life threatening, challenges.

Tuot is all too familiar with the obstacles and setbacks that can arise when trying to achieve an objective. He has faced his share of disappointments and false starts in the Argo system. As if hunting for a hidden treasure with a map written in invisible ink, Tuot and company have spent hours searching high and low for some semblance of a linkage between the caves. Dedicating his weekends to the search, Tuot’s frequent absences from home becomes a point of contention between him and his wife Anouk, who wants him to spend more time with their young family.

Balancing real-life responsibilities with one’s passion is a constant challenge for explorers like Tuot. Although a hobby anyone can pick up, caving requires plenty of practice and sacrifice, often at the expense of one’s family and social life. Dedicating thousands of gruelling hours of unpaid work to their exploration, the reward for cavers is directly tied to the journey rather than the destination. As Graham notes, it is the sense of accomplishment at the end of the struggle that she is chasing after.  The euphoric high only last so long though, so like an adrenaline junkie in constant search of their next fix, it is only a matter of time before cavers are itching to find a new cave to explore.

In delving into the mindset of these thrill seekers, Subterranean offers an intriguing look at the ways the lines between passion and addiction can blur. Incorporating interviews with other members of Speleological groups, loved ones, and a journalist who specializes in adventure writing, De Ruydts ensures that one always understands what compels individuals like Graham and Tuot to drive forward even when the risk of danger would steer others away. The documentary frequently reminds viewers of not only the complications that could occur when venturing into such remote areas, but also the lack of crisis resources available. As Graham states in the film “you don’t call for rescue, we are the rescue.” It’s a fact that becomes chillingly apparent when a medical emergency occurs with the Bisaro Anima team and the nearest exit out of the cave is a three-day journey.

What makes incidents such as these even more harrowing is the fact that De Ruydts’ camera is there to capture it all.  Taking audiences into the caves with both the Bisaro Anima and Argo teams, one feels every claustrophobic step through the narrow passageways the two teams’ travel. Whether using drones to comb through unchartered depths underwater, quietly observing the process of “bolt climbing,” or learning about how cavers handle bodily waste to ensure the sanctity of the shared environment, De Ruydts’ documentary makes the audience feel as if they have earned their amateur spelunker status.

While the cinematography by De Ruydts and Robin Munshaw does a wonderful job of capturing the beauty and potential danger within the caves, it is Graham and Tuot who allow Subterranean to truly resonate. By giving equal weight to both their motivation and the journey, the documentary is able to reflect on the powerful pull of human curiosity and the sense of community it can foster even when deep in a cave. As Subterranean effectively shows, some of the greatest highs can be found in the journey underground.

Subterranean screens at Hot Docs 2023.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

Courtney Small is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic and co-host of the radio show Frameline. He has contributed to That Shelf, Leonard Maltin, Cinema Axis, In the Seats, and Black Girl Nerds. He is the host of the Changing Reels podcast and is a member of the Toronto Film Critics Association, Online Film Critics Society and the African American Film Critics Association.

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