Multidisciplinary artists Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan go fishing in Episode of the Sea, a one-of-a-kind look at a tiny Dutch fishing community called Urk. A bone-dry delight cloaking considerable wit in the garb of an educational or social-issue film, it manages to be at once politically enlightening, elegiac, and funny. Though esoteric even for arthouses, the film will win admirers in fest and niche bookings, prompting many to hope the duo will continue to make movies a part of their artistic output.
Shooting at a 1.33:1 ratio on black-and-white 35mm, the filmmakers have plenty of time for texture-rich, quiet details: chunks of ice sloshing together in the water, wood grain, piles of heavy chain and netting. Often these static shots are interstitials, with long chunks of slowly scrolling text explaining details of this unusual project. As these titles (perhaps playfully) claim, the duo arrived at Urk just in time to learn that their funders had changed their minds. Speaking to the inhabitants of an insular town that has fished for generations, they found unusual affinities. For one thing, “we share an image problem.”
So in between long, wordless takes of men maneuvering fish nets at sea, of fish-gutting and stacking and the sort-slice-freeze at the processing plant back home, we get very peculiar “dialogue” scenes. Having transcribed hundreds of pages of interviews into a script enumerating many of the locals’ tribulations, the filmmakers had townsfolk deliver them, almost without affect, in stiffly blocked tableaux. Imagine a life-sized diorama at the Museum of Natural History that shows life on a trawler, peopled with speaking animatronics instead of immobile mannequins.
According to the titles, the Urkers could not help but note the stiffness of these scenes, and started making suggestions for improvement as filming continued. Poses grow more natural; lines sound less scripted; they even suggest an epilogue about ways new technologies are helping them cope with things like the rising cost of oil. Taken as a whole, these informational scenes manage to convey much about how this industry copes with worries about overfishing, while negating the usual intellectual gulf between filmmakers and their presumably less sophisticated working-class subjects.
If the intelligence of these people might give us hope for the survival of their lifestyle, the film’s credits dampen our optimism: Many of the interviewees are credited as “former flatfish fishermen.” Continuing to find parallels between these endangered practitioners and their own art, van Brummelen and de Haan make note of the brands of film they shot on (including the last batch of a particular Fuji stock), the places they had it developed (one of which went out of business during production), and the institutions that funded them (including a museum that closed its doors last year).
Production company: Van Brummelen & De Hann, IDEAL, VRIZA
Cast: Femmy Brands, Hennie De Bruijne, Tinie De Boer, Henriette Van Urk, Jannie Romkes
Directors-Screenwriters: Lonnie van Brummelen, Siebren de Haan, the inhabitants of Urk
Directors of photography-Editors: Lonnie van Brummelen, Siebren de Haan
Sales: Van Brummelen & De Hann
No rating, 63 minutes