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Episode of the sea: a double eulogy.

Episode of the Sea, a 63 minute film by two Dutch artists, Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan, screened as part of the Wavelengths program at this year's TIFF. A hybrid 'art film/documentary', it is precisely the type of non-commercial film that, for the most part, can be seen only in museums and art galleries--I'm grateful to Andrea Picard, Wavelengths superb programmer, for including it in the film festival. It is one of the most interesting, thoughtful and challenging films I've seen in a long time. (1)

Van Brummelen and De Haan have worked as a team since 2002, their art production reflecting their concept of collaboration as a foundational practice both for themselves as two individuals working together and with the subject/object of their focus. Their working method reflects a kind of anthropological approach, involving what they call 'artistic fieldwork', wherein they immerse themselves in a topic--here a community--in order to discover their project, rather than having a pre-formed concept or theory which they then read onto it. In a positional paper available on their website, they describe this method as 'messy', involving as it does a kind of continual 'shuttling back and forth' between the place where the 'fieldwork' occurs and the place where the material is shaped into the 'artwork' (traditionally, the artists' studio).' Their collaborative working method ensures that the community under investigation participates in the process as a partner--as equal as possible given the end product is to be an artwork--a fact referred to both at the beginning of the film (in the second title on screen) and at the end in the credits, where they are all named and thanked individually.

The film Episode of the Sea is the result of a two year project begun in 2011 when Van Brummelen and De Haan received a grant from the Museum de Paviljoens, Almeer to conduct their artistic fieldwork in the fishing community of Urk, the Netherlands. At the same time as their arrival in Urk, however, the Dutch government effected major funding cuts to the arts, promoting these by demeaning artists as 'scroungers' for public money. As a result of the cuts, their grant was rescinded. Nevertheless, Van Brummelen and De Haan decided to stay and continue their research. While listening to the fishermen's concerns, they recognized that there was a common bond between them. On the one hand were Van Brummelen and De Haan, publically funded artists who deliberately choose to work in the out-moded medium of 35mm analog film; on the other, were the fishermen whose profession, once profitable, has become untenable for reasons beyond their control. In other words, they saw both as 'dying professions'. This analogy provides the raison d'etre for the film, and makes Episode of the Sea a double eulogy.

"The saltwater turned fresh, and the fish died."

Originally, Urk was a small island in the Zuiderzee, or 'inland sea', of Holland, thus cut off by water from the rest of the Netherlands. Consequently, it developed into a homogeneous community of very religious and conservative people with their own dialect, Urkish. In the mid-twentieth century, however, the Dutch government began to reclaim the land to the north, east and south of the island, closing off and draining the sea, and eventually turning Urk from an island into a port/village. The Urkers, who previously had earned their livelihood by fishing for flatfish in the Zuiderzee, found themselves by necessity having to adapt to the disappearance of the saltwater fish that were the mainstay of their livelihood. They travelled north to the open waters of the North Sea, trading in their small wooden boats for large trawlers with huge nets and chains that dragged the ocean floor; now their daily fishing excursions became weeks-long expeditions. While proving themselves remarkably flexible in adopting new methods and modes of fishing, they eventually experienced serious constraints imposed on them by the European Union's strict regulatory control of the fishing industry: establishing national quotas, specifying the kinds of fish they could catch, and closing certain traditional locations to fishing. In addition, the Urkers have found themselves up against much cheaper farmed fish from overseas sources. While fishing once was the traditional profession for Urkers, it has become no longer viable, with the young men unable to make a living as their fathers and grandfathers had.

While their present way of life is ostensibly the subject matter of the film, Episode of the Sea continually upends our expectations of a documentary about the travails of a Dutch fishing village in the twenty-first century. Rather than unfolding as a conventional investigative narrative of a community in crisis, the film surprises us by the addition of non-documentary elements into the overall structure.

From its first moments, Episode of the Sea signals to its audience that this is no ordinary film, let alone documentary. The opening shot doesn't establish--it disorients: an overhead extreme close up view of what one comes to realize is a rock with concentric uneven layers completely fills the screen, the tactile textural patterns emphasized and aestheticized by the use of black and white film stock. The camera is static, and holds on this shot for about 10 seconds, at the end of which the film's title in white letters is superimposed over it. Given the 20 second duration of the shot, the viewer has time to 'look around' and observe that the shape of the film frame--the Academy ratio of 1:33:1--combined with its rounded corners and the use of black and white film self-consciously both recalls and represents old-fashioned technology. Shot 2 is similar: a static, extreme overhead close up of another rock, this time flat. After about 10 seconds, a secondary title appears in smaller letters that says "A collaboration with the fishing community of Urk." This shot is held another 10 seconds or so after the title disappears. Shot 3 then cuts abruptly to give us an eye level medium shot set on the edge of a forest; however, now the camera moves, slowly tracking right, parallel to the trees, whose bare branches come to fill the frame. Shot 4 returns to the static camera, this time presenting a field with a group of jagged rocks in mid ground, the forest in the background. It's held for about 10 seconds. The only sounds we 've heard so far are the sporadic chirping of a bird and/or insects which are continuous even though the shots aren't.

The next group of shots is even stranger. At this point we've become used to the static camera. What's added here is the use of cuts to 'move' the camera, from long shot to medium shot, rather than adjusting the lens. If the use of movement within the shot through adjusting the lens is a technique that produces a smooth and seamless effect, then the (re)introduction of a sequence of cuts-from long shot to medium shot to close up--produces a disruptive effect that calls attention to itself, or at least to the (out-moded) editing process.

Following this, in a series of 8 shots, set in the midst of a field strewn with rocks and covered in long grasses, the forest behind them, women ... first one, then in groups of two or three, are positioned strategically within the landscape so that it's obvious that we are not to see them as having conversations with each other, or even with us. Looking in different directions away from each other and away from the camera, they speak or rather declaim dialogue--more reminiscent of French classical theatre than contemporary realism--that seems abstracted from some bigger history, as if we have arrived abruptly in the midst of a tale rather than at its beginning. These disparate women, middle class and well-dressed, are obviously not actors, and they are just as obviously not good at acting. Their delivery of the quasi-poetical dialogue is affectless, despite their apparent earnestness and the sing-songy characteristic of Urkish, their native tongue. These shots also take their time, again averaging about 20 seconds each, the camera often holding on an individual till well after she's finished speaking. The content of the dialogue is quasi-biblical in its condensation and portentousness.

Thus in a very non-natural and non-conventional opening sequence, we have been introduced to the present day (female) inhabitants of the village of Urk, (some of) their history and (some of) their concerns. What hasn't been introduced (i.e. what a film usually establishes in its opening minutes) is why we're here, in this place with these women. From its title we know that the film is supposed to be about the sea, but so far we've seen only grassy flatland, rocks, and trees, and it's supposed to be about fishing, but we've only seen casually dressed women standing in a field talking. It is only with the following sequence that we find ourselves in familiar 'fishing documentary' territory, when we are taken onto a boat, where documentary-style camerawork and editing are used to explore the various aspects of large-scale self-contained open sea fishing.

In this way, the film's opening prepares us for the idiosyncrasies of Van Brummelen and de Haan's political methods: defamiliarization, disruption, and deliberately anachronistic modes of production and presentation that work against any notion of 'realism' commonly associated with the genre of documentary, as well as the 'seamlessness' of conventional filmmaking. Episode of the Sea has an unusual heterogeneous structure, its trajectory alternating between three distinctly different types of narration: documentary, staged scenes, and screen-high texts scrolling over fixed shots. The first (and the type expected of/in a documentary) consists of those scenes and sequences that show in beautifully composed footage the fishing routines of the inhabitants of Urk: fishermen working on their boats; hauling in nets; repairing them; unloading the fish into tanks; sorting and preparing the catch for storage. Or on land: on the wharfs and docks where boats and nets are repaired; in factories where the fish are sorted cleaned and frozen for packing; and at an auction where the fish are sorted for sales.

The second type consists of a dozen staged scenes like the one described above from the film's opening. Unlike that one--set on land with women speaking--these are set on fishing boats or the docks and have (mostly) men speaking. Just as with the opening scene, however, in these there is a friction between the visual and audial components. In spite of the fact that the fishermen are grouped together as if they were conversing, the dialogue that ensues is absolutely artificial in content and delivery--not dialogue as much as declamation, a conceit which serves to draw attention to the fact that it's a 'performance' of written material, rather than a natural spontaneous expression of the individual speaking.

The interspersing of these two very different kinds of'narration'--the first being natural and realistic while the other is dramatically artificial--produces a kind of Brechtian distanciation effect: the viewer is thrust into an awareness that what we are watching as 'reality' is also 'art', i.e. a work constructed by individuals for particular purposes. In addition, while the documentary segments are very much about what's happening right now--the camera is capturing and displaying the present--the staged scenes seem to conflate past and present by strategically removing those markers that enable us to place and contextualize events and actions. The inhabitants of Urk who speak are not named, nor do they refer to specific dates when discussing various events. The effect of this is that, while age-wise they represent a cross-section of Urkers, it's difficult to differentiate from their dialogue between what's happened to them in the present from what happened to their fathers and/or grandfathers in the past. As a strategy, this creates an ambience that is both specific and timeless ... located within a specific community but with universal application; again, like a classical Greek drama.

Episode of the Sea also employs a third structural element, one which combines the visual with the textual. At intervals throughout the film, the camera fixes on an extreme close up of something abstracted and defamiliarized from nature, say, an overhead shot of the wooden floorboards of the ship which fill the picture frame.' Over this frozen shot scrolls, from bottom to top, a 'page-length' text that eventually fills the entire screen. This static shot is held on screen until the last line of text disappears from view. Just as with those shots of people speaking that were held well past the completion of the dialogue, the duration of this shot, lasting well past its delivery of the information it's presenting, draws attention to its use as a conceit within the/a film.

While this is interesting on a formal level, what's more consequential is that it is precisely in these textual interludes that Van Brummelen and De Haan speak to us the viewers directly, making their absence present through the printed words. In this way they signal to us that they are not just 'behind the camera' but also in front of it, structuring the narrative by 'participating' in it, albeit as textual presences. Their texts inform us about the history and present day experiences of the inhabitants of Urk, about their own interests and concerns as artists, of the genesis of the film project, their process, their practice, and philosophy, and the collaborative processes which involved the inhabitants of Urk. For example, one of the later texts tells us how the staged scenes came into being: that, once a script had been assembled from hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews, they showed it to the Urkers, who then determined amongst themselves not only what material would be included, but also who would perform it, and how. In a way, these scrolling texts function as a metanarrative or an ur-text that don't just run parallel to the other two components but also provide the thematic 'glue' that causes the three parts--the community (the staged scenes), the fishing industry (the documentary footage), and the artists/ formmakers (the scrolling texts)--to come together to form the whole.

Episode of the Sea ends with an extended set of credits that are in themselves an integral part of the film. In addition to the usual listing of those people involved in the making of the film, Van Brummelen and De Haan use the end credits to reinforce the function of the film as a eulogy for two dying professions. As with the scrolling texts, the filmmakers speak to us directly through them. The credits list the names of all the inhabitants of Urk (and a few Polish fishermen) who were interviewed and/or participated in the staged scenes. In many cases, however, appended to an individual's name is a statement detailing the 'present occupation' of the former fisherman, and/ or that the boat he worked on has since been decommissioned. The credits also inform us of the lamentable state of affairs for artists like Van Brummelen and De Haan: from the closing of the museum that initially funded them, and the negative processing company that they used, to the obsolescence of their 1980s 35 mm camera and diminished availability of their film stock.

In the end, we are left with much to think about. In their writings, the two artists have spoken about a return to practice/praxis over theory as a meaningful artistic strategy. Episode of the Sea is a refreshing example of what can be achieved when innovative aesthetics are combined with socially committed progressive politics.


(1) For research on this film, I am indebted to the fact that Episode of the Sea is one of the works included in an online open access media archive "World of Matter" based in Brussels. There are 7 clips from the film, as well as 7 textual segments that outline the film's motivation and also expand on the information conveyed in it through additional materials e.g. some transcripts of the conversations held between Van Brummelen and De Haan and the fishermen, worldofmatter. net/wonder-urk#path=introduction-episode-sea Interestingly enough, this alternating structure replicates the structure of the film itself.

(2) "Drifting Studio Practice: From molding sugar to the unknown depths of the sea" a pdf document available on the artists website

In addition to the notion of 'drifting' explained in the document, it seems to me to also be a reference to the Situationist concept of 'une derive>/drift, an aesthetic strategy wherein a person/artist finds their' subject' by moving randomly through a city space with an emphasis on the experience of the 'drift' rather than an end product. Art and life as one.

(3) The first 2 shots of the film-overhead closeups of rocks--fall into this category too.
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Author:Morrison, Susan
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Dec 22, 2015
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