Thursday, 23 January 2020

FILM REVIEW: From The Sea To The Land Beyond - HOME, Manchester.

‘From The Sea To The Land Beyond’ (Dir: Woodcock, P. 2012) is the fourth film in HOME’s ‘In Her View: Women Documentary Filmmakers’ season and is the only one to feature an Anglo-centric subject matter. Using over a century’s worth of archival material, Penny Woodcock’s ode to our relationship with Britain’s coastline promises a nostalgic, celluloid postcard.

I was drawn to this film by HOME’s blurb in the listings, which emphasised the original score by British Sea Power and the use of archival material, so rightly assumed that it would be a collage of images aimed at evoking dewy-eyed sentiment for bygone times. As the documentary begins it is abundantly clear that director Woodcock is entrenched in the poetic mode; eschewing captions, voiceover or any other heavy-handed framing devices. The audience are to assume era, location, even thematic focus entirely on their own and it is not always an easy task. The opening footage transports us across waves, to a shoreline and finally to grainy, primitive black and white footage of Britain at the turn of the 20th century as the brooding adagio piano notes of British Sea Power’s score give way to an uplifting brass section. It is an uneasy opening five minutes, as the film struggles to find it’s feet with footage that is obviously limited in quality and the first three tracks from the soundtrack resembling an album playlist, rather than a bespoke score. It is jarring, but the film soon settles and the score really comes into its own.

With her film, Woodcock and her editor Alex Fry opt for chronology as their structural cue, which in hindsight is a real misstep. As the montage of images transports us through the first world war, the thirties, the second world war and beyond, the snapshots of life, industry, geology and history pass by without offering the viewer any significant theme or tone to get a true foothold on. We see bathers, ships’ crewmen (& crewwomen), shipbuilders, fishmongers and all walks of life intrinsically linked to the coastline, but all too often the juxtaposition between footage offers contrast, rather than comparison, so any feeling that the film is perhaps discussing industry is subverted by bathers, no wait… now it’s a TV broadcast, oh no… it’s shopping, before we’re back to bathers… and now transport… oh look, a seagull! (You get the idea)

It is only when watching the film that it becomes so apparent what one wanted from it in the first place. It never moves the viewer in a nostalgic sense, it finds no sense of space, the viewer is never immersed and it finds little by the way of humour or pathos because the filmmakers seem so hell-bent on barrelling through the decades. The British Isles has about 15 000 miles of coastline and 75 minutes of breathlessly touring them allows very little opportunity to truly explore them. The aesthetic quality of the footage is also not noteworthy enough to feel that this was perhaps the focus of Woodcock & Fry as they cut the film.

Overall I was never bored or disengaged by ‘From The Sea To The Land Beyond’; the footage is engaging and British Sea Power’s original score is consistently powerful (to the point where it occurred to me that the film would be better functioning as a back projection to a live performance by the band). I wanted so much to find ideas, moods or messages to cling to as I watched, but ultimately the footage works merely as a rather mild curio than a poetic insight into Britain’s coastline. It is an unfocussed, missed opportunity, but a worthy effort that admittedly held my attention throughout.

HOME’s ‘In Her View: Women Documentary Filmmakers’ season continues throughout January.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 22/1/20

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