DW Mault on BFI doc. From The Sea To The Land Beyond, and Liverpool’s unique relationship with its coastline…
The sea is a master that fears no one but instills in everyone who dwells beside its enormous threat of eternal death the knowledge that we are mere blips beside it’s magnificence. Away from the safely trite environs of BBC2’s Coast, Penny Woolcock and British Sea Power present a hymn to the visual representation of 100 years of the British Coast and all that entails.
It seems since Terence Davies’ masterly Of Time And The City cinema has been crying out for companionship. The very idea of the cinematic essay is as long as cinema itself; one thinks of The Man With A Movie Camera, to the films of cinema’s own Poet Laureate Chris Marker, with Wim Wenders’ salutation to Ozu: Toyko Ga (and we even have Mark Cousins’ What Is This Film Called Love to look forward to); but like most ideas that come from the void of obsessional creativity these films are tough. Tough to dream, to make, to live and most of all to edit.
One thinks of the BBC’s resident lunatic in the attic (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) Adam Curtis, a man who tirelessly battles through thousands of hours of archive to show how we live now (and also how we have lived), and finds answers to questions that the obsequious powers want us to forget and give us instead the narcotic form of reality television.
These films are few and far between because they are difficult to make, and for audiences used to modern television, difficult to watch. So it was a bold decision by Heather Croall (director of The Sheffield Doc/Fest) when she rang Penny Woolcock and asked whether she would like to make a film out of 100 years of archive. Penny could be as lyrical and contemplative as she liked, but the only limitation was it had to be a silent film about the coast of Britain, the material must be owned by the BFI, and the band British Sea Power had already be contracted to provide the music…
Well, Woolcock being the filmmaker she is, she of course snapped Croall’s hand off and the film From The Sea To The Land Beyond is the result and answer to that original question.
Different in many ways to Of Time And The City; mainly it’s not as achingly personal, nor is there any voice over. And for that, one could say it’s more cinematic; in the sense that cinema is connected to our dreams; our subconscious, vis a vis narrative inventiveness, that harks back to the greatest filmmaker that never was: Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s stream of consciousness narrative explosions in such books as The Waves and To The Lighthouse prefigure pure cinema and the ebbs and flows of editorial rhythms that From The Sea To The Land Beyond makes its own.
When I first watched From The Sea To The Land Beyond it was with the notion that where I was watching it gave it an extra frisson of identifying knowing; because I was moments away from the sea. Growing up in Liverpool, the sea is always there, and while Derry has its phantasmagorical idea of its walls and how the psychogeography therein can tell you more than any history book, we have the sea and all that says, again and again. If this is how the sea affects modern Liverpool, think of the history of our fair city and how we are uniquely connected to the idea of the sea and what that means.
I would say that Liverpool’s relationship with the sea is one that no other city can or will ever know. It also links you to other cities and ideas; famously Liverpool looks away from the mainland. As a city and a people we are not interested in ideas of nationhood, we have bigger fish to fry. Our history is the history of ebbs and flows; we’re up, we’re down, but never defeated. We have joint cause to defy and love with abandon the sea and want it’s brought us and taken away.
From The Sea To The Land Beyond starts with Mitchell & Kenyon, those Blackpool photographers whose mission was ‘local films for local people’. In the excellent booklet that comes with the BFI DVD, Penny Woolcock talks about the idea in films such as Looper and/or Alice In Wonderland, of a pod or rabbit hole that transports you from here to there in the twinkling of an eye, from the past to the present and back again, from one one parallel world to another. Well in those early archive films we have people staring into the camera, which via immense power locks us (the audience) towards them and their time and back again. Cinema has always shown us and taken us forwards and backwards, for is not the camera the greatest time machine ever invented?
And so it goes, the films glides through a secret working history of Britain, all the time accompanied by British Sea Power’s knowingly elegiac score. This is a film that wallows in those secret histories, that shows the true heart and strength of Britain was always the North; a North now forgotten and patronised by the South like the black sheep that is never acknowledged or bettered. Now post Industrial Revolution, we are again broken and battered, but because of circular notions of time and moments an inverse can only mean that this noble few, these band of brothers will sail on and away; because of the sea, always because of that harsh maiden that holds all to account.
Even if you saw From The Sea To The Land Beyond on BBC4 recently, this DVD from the BFI is a must-purchase as it includes an immense selection of extras including a few Mitchell & Kenyon shorts featuring Liverpool.