Tribute Freediver: Martin Zapanta


Tribute Freediver depicts the story of national freediving record-holder Martin Zapanta, and how conquering his fears propelled a passion for photographing the deep blue on a single breath.

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Maldavar Films co-founder and film director Sebastien Gilbert speaks to GRID about filming underwater and having a fellow photographer as his subject.


Tell us the story behind your work  in the Philippines. How did you find yourself working here, creating videos and content that depict the beauty of this country to the world? Does Maldavar Films have a particular vision or message that drives the work it produces?

SEBASTIEN: I came to the Philippines 10 years ago to finish the last requirement of my business school at the time, an international internship. I got the opportunity to stay with the company and decided to settle here. At that time, shooting video was just a side hobby, shooting videos of my travel in the Philippines and around Asia. Then, social media started to grow and I discovered several videographers that inspired me to push my passion for videography to the next level.

Two years ago, I invested part of my savings into semi-pro gear and started taking freelance work. I quickly realized that there is still space in this market, so I co-created Maldavar Films  in 2016 with my partner in life and in business, Janina Manipol, who is also a content creator. Maldavar is actually a made-up word; it stands for an imaginary world where your imagination can run free, a bit like the world of Peter Pan. Our motto is “Keep looking at the world through the eyes of a child,” and our visual work illustrates this vision.


What sparked your interest in creating your latest documentary, Tribute Freediver? Was the genesis from a fascination for the freediving sport, or was it directly inspired by the freediver in your film—Martin Zapanta?

SEBASTIEN: I have always been attracted to the great outdoors, water sports, etc. I’ve been shooting a lot of surf photos and videos in the last three years, and freediving was always just around the corner since I was a kid. I was looking for a topic for a documentary; something related to the ocean, something close to me with a compelling story. So when I came across Martin’s work online (through his video reel, as well as his Instagram account), the timing couldn’t have been better.

I took a shot and contacted him to ask if he would be interested to tell his story through my lens—and he accepted. I decided to call this documentary “Tribute,” because I want to use this content as a shoutout to people who push themselves and inspire others to do the same. Freediver is the first documentary of this series but I hope there will be many more people with compelling stories in the near future.

Could you tell us about how you met Martin, and the experience of working with him on this project? Do you have any insights or learnings from this experience of working with a freediver and photographer that you’d like to share?

SEBASTIEN: Martin is a very friendly and a chill guy, I think this can be said of many freedivers. I believe the work they put into controlling their mind and body has an impact on the energy they convey out of the water too. It is always interesting to work with fellow videographers and photographers as you can share your knowledge both ways. The technique, the gears, the ideas, we share the same passion so we speak the same language.


What were some of the challenges you encountered while working on this project, and how did you overcome them?

SEBASTIEN: The challenge for me was to master new gear in an unfamiliar environment. I am comfortable in water, yes, but it is another ball game to actually freedive and shoot at the same time, especially as it was the first time I was using a proper underwater case. Shooting underwater requires a particular set of skills and knowledge, that you only acquire by (literally) jumping in the water. There is no shortcut: dive in, make mistakes, learn from it, improve your next shot, repeat. That’s the way to go.

Then you also have the challenge to push your own physical limit at staying long and deep enough to get compelling images, while always keeping safety in mind. You wouldn’t want to drown in your images and forget how deep you are before actually going back up to breathe!

Challenges are experiences that we are not used to. Failing or succeeding at challenges are both equally valuable; it allows you to learn from your mistakes, and it also gives you the confidence to strive for even greater challenges. And this is what the story of Tribute Freediver is all about: you can’t go wrong when facing your fears. The important thing is your perception of it, that failure can still be positive.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.