QFF 2015: Episode of the Sea

Becalmed ocean spirits
Floating just above board
Ancient modalities
To the new modern

A fact-based fable, a post-mortem eulogy, labels abound when discussing, when thinking about filmmakers Siebren de Haan and Lonnie van Brummelen’s new ethnographic documentary Episode of the Sea, a stern quasi-comedic exploration of North Sea fishermen – their culture, community and heritage endangered as they face the pressures of changed public perception, international politics and ever shifting regulations.

Broken up into chapters with storied text behind them that lays out history and situation, the picture captures the fishermen’s process by having members of the Urk fishing community pose in black and white frames (a drink coaster-like aspect ratio of 1.33:1) and read their dialogue – stilted statements about how the fishing industry has changed for them, with nothing but deadpan effect – the ‘actors’ feel like uncast extras from the films of Aki Kurasmaki. Holding seconds both before and after they’ve read their lines, it gives the picture a deliberately arch quality, without passion, it serves as an extreme counter to more politicized diatribes about fishing for global consumption – one whose learned dryness becomes poignant when the decline of the fishing industry in the area is measured not only against but by the equally endangered technology of film, a poignancy perhaps increased by this reviewer’s film-viewing notation: Episode of the Sea was viewed on a DCP (today’s replacement for the 35-millimeter film print).

The filmmakers reveal and revel in their mode of operation as the fishermen show us theirs. It becomes, quite surprisingly, a conversation. Technology many consider to be obsolete framing and capturing those perhaps soon to be, in gorgeous and hopefully timeless black and white. In documentation, viewers find themselves witnessing many an act of determined preservation – the original express purpose of the documentary motion picture.

From the absolute to the obsolete, Episode of the Sea operates somewhere in between such signposts. Featuring fish being caught, crated and prepared, the easiest filmic comparison would be to the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab, particularly their 2014 fishing boat ocean spray feature Leviathan. Yet while such a documentary is immersion cinema at it’s finest, Episode of the Sea maintains a distance apt for heritage sculpted over decades slowly eroding before our eyes (its vision of rock faces and shorelines awash finds itself among some of the most beautiful cinematographic compositions of the year). While it holds a dryness many would consider pretentious, the film is also quite funny, especially when we see readers almost break the trained blankness of their faces.

The rhythm is at once abbreviated and slow, perhaps because it’s tracking both the natural flow of the oceans which the fisherman inhabit (as it inhabits them) and the fast paced nature of international politics and food production. De Haan and van Brummelen have crafted a documentary expressly for the archives yet one that, as its title and ending (the removal of a boat’s propeller) suggest, remains vulnerable to currents forming today whose ripples will be felt, again, well into the future. Thusly, while overly sober, Episode of the Sea is always moving.

Episode of the Sea screened at the inaugural Queensland Film Festival, at New Farm Cinemas from July 24–26, 2015.

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