Now on its sixth year, the Ocean Film Festival returns to Britain at a time when we need our socio-political wounds treated with foreign ointment in the form of films from around the world that showcase the most abundantly hearted and spiritually driven humans. This was my third year in a row witnessing the OFF at Venue Cymru – Llandudno. Even though I’m only a week home from my own oceanic adventures of diving and surfing the warm, crystalline waters teeming with aquatic life (and plastic, unfortunately) of Indonesia, the playlist of nine short films still emboldened my desire to grow gills, scales and fin, slither my way beneath the undulating surface of the sea, only to return once I’ve shot a documentary featuring mind-melting shots of neon seafloors and Atlantean parties, interviews with turtles, eels and dolphins about the effects of the man-made climate crisis and of course, humorously showcase the disasters of me learning to speak seahorse and cough with gills along the way.
Perhaps my imagination has ridden too big a barrel there but when you can look down the scope of one, a barrel made by a storm of seawater that refracts the paradise of Tahiti (featured in one of the films), then anything seems worth dreaming about.
A Place For Penguins — Tom Parry, 12 mins
We’ve all done it. Pretended to throw a ball across the beach for our furry follower who trusts you so much that she/he couldn’t fathom that you’d ever try and trick them. It’s a power play on our part, which is fitting to us wanting to be the master. But what if we had the best intentions in trying to trick animals to bolt somewhere else? Scientist Christina Hagen and artist Roelf Daling are doing just that as they attempt to fool Cape Town’s African penguins to relocate a few hundred miles around the headland to follow their food — intrepid fish who have migrated. If the penguins don’t make the permanent swim around the cape then they will become extinct within just ten years. But a marriage of science and art could be the answer. “We’re going to try and trick the penguins into thinking there’s already a colony at the new site,’ says Christina. And that’s where Roelf comes in. He’s a sculptor whose creating true-to-life penguin replicas (podgy little ladies to show there’s plenty of food) to be placed in the new settlement. The penguin’s initial reactions to their clay sistren are hilarious but the reality is quite heart-breaking. Conservation is placed at such a reactive foothold because of the rate in which we are rewriting Mother Nature’s rule book. And all this thought up for a Masters dissertation. I’m going to have to write a book as abundant as Don Quixote to top that for mine.
Surface – John Rodosky, 7 mins
From the first image to the last, French oceanic photographer Ben Thouard’s quest for a project reflecting who he is mesmerizes. Shots from behind the waves showcase the enchantment of the tides. Ben has moved to Tahiti and spends almost every day in the water to try and find new perspectives to shoot from. This lithe documentary still packs enough inspiration for us to want to move to Tahiti, amidst the luscious greens ensconced by the big blue. And as I mentioned in the intro, the shots Ben gets from risky positions below the ten-foot plus line up live up to his desire that his photos speak louder than words. But I’ll try. A fisheye lens for a position previously inhabited only by a fish’s eyes, the aquatic portals Ben allows us to witness redefine our imaginings of how surfable waves behave whilst evoking the hypnotic inter-dimensional scenes of rippling travel in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
I Am Fragile – Florian Ledoux, 5 mins
“With greater ice melts shattering their essential hunting and breeding grounds, many species become refugees in their own natural habitat,” states film-maker Floriax Ledoux. His trek to Nunavut, the most northerly territory of Canada, wasn’t just to frame the untamed ferocity of polar bears, walrus, and narwhals, but to peel back their fragility. Another film bursting with visionary cinematography capturing the essence of the oxymoronic landscape that is frozen and yet melting thanks to us oxygen breathing morons, I Am Fragile gives voice to these beautiful creatures that could soon become mythology should they continue to have their homes taken from them.
Manry at Sea – Steve Wystrach, 42 mins
Though Robert Manry’s façade could have been seen as a middle-aged married man settled in a docile job (copy editor at his local newspaper in Cleveland), he was fiercely cheery and constantly piecing his dream together day by day. He wanted to sail the Atlantic Ocean in a 13ft sail-boat. Back in 1965 suburbia, this was a bit of a revelation to all those who wrote the man off. “I think one of the tragedies of life is that young people have these dreams, but as they grow older and run up against the hard realities of existence, often they have to give up their dreams. And I was determined this wasn’t going to happen to me.” And after extensive planning, prepping and pondering, Bob set off with his budget equipment and a new understanding of celestial navigation.
The film is edited with incredible precision. A collation of what seems like hundreds of sources. There’s gameshows, home videos, news broadcasts, recent interviews, old interviews, Bob’s own video documentation, footage taken from ships passing him by, etc. All of the film reel footage gives Manry at Sea an authentic aesthetic stamped by the sixties. Bob’s footage, though rarely stunning, is personal and cramped, giving the viewer a feel of how difficult it must have been to navigate stormy days and windless nights, separate reality from hallucination from lack of sleep and embody a human swiss-army knife when rudders and watches broke. All shot with a glorious gap-toothed smile.
The downside for me to Manry is the embellishment toward run time for the story line of warring newspapers bringing all the poor values of capitalism to the lucid journey of an old-ish man and the sea. The simplicity and yet gravitas of such a voyage didn’t need the back and forth of the old boys recollecting their desire to exploit Manry’s journey for readership. Though with all the press he was getting during his journey running up on freight ships and war vessels who subsequently reported Bob’s progress, when he does get closer to the British isles, he has a rock star welcome. Imagine if British people were that happy to see foreigners coming into THEIR country on boats now? But this is a short film that transcends politics and propaganda for one man’s desire to realize his dream and fulfill the promise to his wife that he’ll never become a bore.
Forever – Tony Plant, 3 mins
Tony Plant’s paintbrush is a rake. A sandy beach is his canvas. A cliffside camera his audience. This three minute timelapse is like looking at a seaside cropcircle being drawn by aliens with a keen eraser. Time and tide wait for no man – to draw swirling mosaics. Though the stakes are low, this is a war between an artist and his ever changing landscape.
Emocean – Tony Harrington, 24 mins
Out of Tony Harrington’s simple desire to surf and document some of the earth’s mightiest barrels, organically grew this filmic cavalcade of ocean farers pronouncing their love for the waves whilst warning of the dangers borne from trying to tame the sea. This cavalcade consists of surfers, scientists, photographers and fishermen scoring some nauseating visuals with their stories. A shock reveal of one of the interviewee’ indomitable spirit to spend every second in the sea even after it has taken so much from him is one of the most cutting moments I’ve had in a cinema this year. Emocean is a soulful patchwork of pathos, philosophy, and piety toward the great humbler of humanity. The sea doesn’t care for our plans but it does provide us with motivation for them.
A Peace Within – Katy Fraser, 6 mins
Painting landscapes with precision and elegance has been a love of artists since cave walls were a canvas. Phillip Gray wants to channel that ancient mindset in going back to caves to paint, although these caves are submerged sinkholes in Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Gray uses a weighted easel and previously mixed finger paints (which are eco-friendly) as he breathes through a regulator and translates stunning alien worlds to the canvas. A testament to how artists should continue to challenge themselves and their predecessors in interpreting our ever wonderful world. “To be able to paint in this environment where no one has ever painted before is a privilege.”
The Passage – Nathan Dappen, 23 mins
Our parents are our first storytellers. Their lives and the exploits and adventures they did or didn’t do nurture our understanding of the world. Nathan Dappen grew up on the tale of his mother, father, and uncle becoming some of the first people to canoe through the islands of the northwest coast of America, known as the Inside Passage.
In 1974, Nathan wasn’t even a thought to his college-camped mum and dad and their desire to do something few people have done at a snatch of ultimate freedom in adventure before real life settles in. Nathan and his brother Ben want to recreate their parents’ journey but also help them finish what was started forty years prior. Alan and Andy never quite finished their initial journey, they stopped three hundred miles short.
The Passage uses an array of photographs that span two generations in a mosaic of family, coming-of-age and never becoming settled enough to challenge yours and other’s predispositions. With the original canoes re-purposed and the fathers Alan and Andy stating how much heavier they seem all these years later, the journey must continue so it can be passed on to Nathan and Ben. This poignant and uplifting tale of brothers and sons is proof that we follow on from our parent’s roots, and that we can travel their grooves whilst planting our own seeds.
Surfer Dan – Tim Kemple, 8 mins
The man walks on water. Not because he is a prodigy, no, Dan is just a dude with a penchant for surfing gnarly waves. He walks on water because, to get to his brain-freezing surf, he must often hike some of Lake Superior’s 37,000 square miles – four times the size of Wales! There’s no sand and barely any sun in Dan’s steely-clouded world but he’s more than happy to have a beard full of icicles to be able to surf in land-locked Michigan. We don’t just sea Dan dodging chunks of ice on his longboard but get to meet his canine companions and hear his confessions that surfing saved him from a life of alcoholism. And maybe that’s why he seems a bit mad skidding around streets in his campervan after a below-zero surf.
This was the 2019 Ocean Film Festival. Nine films so salty that you’ll be licking your lips when leaving the theatre anticipating what type of activity you’ll be doing in the sea on your next day off. I’ve managed to catch the OFF early on its UK run this year so there are over twenty dates still available. If you fancy escaping a grim reality or simply trying something new, witnessing this playlist of films will only embolden your desire to chase down a dream and alter your reality so it looks a little more like you hoped it would in your childhood imagination the first time you ran away from the biting tide.
To see what dates and places suit you, visit: https://www.oceanfilmfestival.co.uk/
See you in the surf.
Aaron studies Creative and Professional Writing at Bangor University and is Film Critic for Ready Steady Cut and Nation. He is also a Young Critic for the Arts Council of Wales.