Review: ‘Dave Not Coming Back,’ starring Don Shirley, David Shaw, Ann Shaw and Theo Dreyer

November 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dave Shaw in “Dave Not Coming Back” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Dave Not Coming Back”

Directed by Jonah Malak 

Culture Representation: Taking place in South Africa, the documentary “Dave Not Coming Back” features an all-white group of people discussing the 2005 tragic deep-water diving death of Australian diver David “Dave” Shaw.

Culture Clash: Shaw and several other divers had been on a mission to recover the body of another diver who died in 1994, despite warnings that this mission would be dangerous.

Culture Audience: “Dave Not Coming Back” will appeal primarily to people interested in documentaries about deep-water diving that combine archival footage, original interviews and re-enactments.

A scene from “Dave Not Coming Back” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The documentary “Dave Not Coming Back” (directed by Jonah Malak) takes a harrowing look into the tragic death of 50-year-old Australian diver David “Dave” Shaw, who died in 2005 in Boesmansgat, a notoriously deadly freshwater cave in the Northern Cape province of South Africa. The title of the movie refers to the note that was written during the dive to let the other divers know what happened to Shaw. What’s different about this deep-water film is that this fateful journey in Bousemansgat (which means “Bushman’s Hole” in English) is recreated on film by including one of the divers (Don Shirley) who narrowly escaped death during this dive. It’s very unusual for a survivor to be willing to recreate this devastating event for a movie, but people can have different ways of dealing with trauma.

The documentary includes some basic education about deep-water driving: Although someone can dive into deep water at a rapid pace, coming back up has to be much slower, due to oxygen levels and pressure that can do bodily damage if someone ascends too quickly. Decompression illness, also known as “the bends,” occurs when tiny air bubbles form in the blood and can result in permanent damage to the body or death.

Decompression illness is what happened to Shirley, who was one of Shaw’s closest friends and still feels the effects of not being able to save Shaw on that fateful day. The diving excursion (which happened on January 8, 2005) wasn’t for thrills but had a serious purpose: to recovery the body of Deon Dreyer, a 20-year-old diver who died in Bousemansgat in 1994. His body remained missing until it was discovered by Shaw, 10 years later while he was on a diving trip there.

Bousemansgat is treacherous for divers because of how deep the water in the cave can go. As of this writing, the longest on-the-record depth that a diver has reached in Bousemansgat is 282.6 meters, which equals 927.2 feet, in a feat achieved by Nuno Gomes (a Portuguese-South African diver) in 1996. In October 2004, Shaw planned to do a deep dive of about 270 to 280 meters in Bousemansgat. A dive that is 270 to 280 meters can take as little as 17 minutes to dive down, but as many as 12 hours to come back up.

Shaw comments in 2004 video archival footage that’s shown in the documentary: “I had no expectation to break the world record for death. The aim was to explore. When I looked off to the left, that’s when I saw the body that had been lost 10 years earlier.”

With the permission of Dreyer’s family (Deon Dreyer’s father Theo Dreyer is interviewed in the documentary), a team of experienced divers that included Shaw and Shirley returned to Bousemansgat on January 8, 2005, to recover the body. Shaw wanted to document the dive, so he wore a helmet with a video camera secured at the top of the helmet.

Derek Hughes, one of the divers on this trip, says in hindsight that Shaw’s decision to wear a helmet might have been a mistake that sealed his fate on the dive. In an interview for the documentary, Hughes says that Shaw not only wasn’t used to wearing a helmet while diving, but also the helmet was very bulky because it had to house a video camera. Shaw’s unfamiliarity with wearing a helmet while diving, along with the helmet getting in the way when Shaw tried to untangle some wiring that was tied to Deon Dreyer’s body, turned out to be the main reason why Shaw got stuck underwater and died.

Hughes comments, “It plays on my mind sometimes. Was the desire to document the whole dive partly responsible for what happened? That makes those feelings of guilt a real issue.”

The underwater video that Shaw recorded during the dive also recorded his death. Shirley calls it a “snuff video” that he vehemently fought against being shown on TV newscasts. Shirley is seen on camera advising the “Dave Not Coming Back” filmmakers at which point they should cut off the underwater video footage that Shaw recorded if the filmmakers chose to use any of the footage in the documentary. They follow that advice.

Although “Dave Not Coming Back” shows the moment when Shaw found the wiring that would end up being the catalyst for his death, the documentary wisely does not include any footage of Shaw dying. It would be extremely tacky and unnecessary exploitation if any of that death footage was in the movie. As for the recreation footage of the diving trip, it’s respectfully done, so that viewers can get a sense of how much of an enormous challenge it was to go on this diving mission. The excellent cinematography of Marwan Haroun gives a stunning and immersive experience of what it’s like to go on a diving mission in this enchanting but treacherous environment.

Even with eye-catching scenes in the film, “Dave Not Coming Back” is mostly made worthwhile because of the participation of Shirley and other people who were part of the diving team on that fateful day. Shirley shares fond memories of Shaw, by saying things like: “I never had a brother. Dave felt like a brother.” He also mentions that he and Shaw had a special bond because they were so alike in many ways, such as how they suited up for a dive and their striking physical resemblance to each other.

Theo Dreyer also felt a special connection to Shaw because, as he says in the documentary, Shaw reminded him of his son Deon: “Dave is one of the few people I compare to Deon. The similarities … were frightening. He [Dave Shaw] tried to do me a favor and ended up not coming back. That’s extremely intense.”

Other people interviewed in the film include divers who were on this trip: Stephen Sander, Peter Herbst, Mark Andrews, Dusan Stojakovic (who died in a diving accident in 2017), Truwin Laas, Petras Roux, Lo Vingerling and Andre Shirley (Don Shirley’s wife). Also interviewed are Ann Shaw (Dave’s widow); Dr. Jack Meintjies (a diving medical expert who is medical director of Divers Alert Network Southern Africa); and diving instructor Gerhard Du Preez.

“Dave Not Coming Back” isn’t all gloom and doom about Shaw’s death. The archival footage of Shaw shows him to be an adventurous and generous diver who was well-respected by his peers. This movie does a very good job of honoring the life that he led, while also giving a respectful way for the survivors to express their points of view. Malak keeps the pace and the tone of the movie consistently on the passion for deep-water diving, but “Dave Not Coming Back” is also a cautionary tale of how someone’s life can be cruelly taken away during this high-risk activity.

Gravitas Ventures released “Dave’s Not Coming Back” on digital and VOD on November 10, 2020.