Raw Herring: Tribeca Review
Tribeca Film Festival, World Documentary Competition
Leonard Retel Helmrich, Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich
Filmmakers ride along with Dutch herring fishers in an up-close look at endangered traditions.
NEW YORK — Distasteful even to some who grew up around it, the Dutch tradition of slathering uncooked herring with onions and gulping them down seal-style remains an important ritual of national identity. Catching those fish, though, is increasingly the province of Norwegian vessels using techniques so far rejected by the Dutch. In Raw Herring, Leonard Retel Helmrich and Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich ride along with the last two Dutch ships engaged in this hunt; the verite-style result will be of interest to a fairly small niche of the doc-consuming public, but benefits from some surprising underwater photography and a strong sense of connection with the crews of Wiron 5 and Wiron 6.
Opening titles acknowledge the industry's modernization, suggesting we're witnessing a changing way of life, but viewers will get little elaboration on that subject in this strictly observational film. Instead, we meet families who have plied the North Sea for centuries and watch a handful of their men go off looking for the little silver fish their ancestors found so valuable.
The film offers a good sense of life on a long-haul ship, listening to the innocently bawdy jokes traded over morning coffee and evening drinks. On this outing, crew members are joined by a few of their sons, and the couple of glimpses we get of intergenerational camaraderie suggest that these seaside communities aren't yet ready to let this particular variety of fishing culture die.
It takes a while for navigators to find their prey, but the crew leaps to action when they do -- pulling in a massive haul and affording us a view of each stage of its journey: After vacuuming the fish out of nets, men test them for fat content, gut them with knives, pass them through various kinds of conveyors, and package them for eager recipients back home. There, connoisseurs will scrape and prod, taking big bites out of sample fish to gauge the quality of the catch.
But Raw Herring's most novel sight occurs at the start of that long process, with underwater scenes of fish in the net, some already torn apart by the violence of being caught, and of gulls diving into the brine to feast on them. These shots will prompt comparisons to the recent fishing doc Leviathan, whose co-director
Lucien Castaing-Taylor was a Harvard colleague of Leonard Retel Helmirch and reportedly consulted with him about shooting under and around enormous fishing operations. The Massachusetts-set Leviathan may have cornered the market for big-screen investigations of this subject, but moviegoers drunk on the romance of the sea will be happy to watch how those New Englanders' cousins in Holland keep their own traditions alive.
Production Company: First Hand Films, In-Soo Productions
Directors-Screenwriters: Leonard Retel Helmrich, Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich
Producers: In-Soo Radstake, Esther Van Messel
Director of photography: Leonard Retel Helmrich
Music: Ahmad Fahmy Al-Attas
Editor: Jasper Naaijkens
Sales: Esther van Messel, First Hand Films GMBH
No rating, 85 minutes
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