The Sound of the Sea
The sea awoke at midnight from its sleep,
And round the pebbly beaches far and wide
I heard the first wave of the rising tide
Rush onward with uninterrupted sweep;
A voice out of the silence of the deep,
A sound mysteriously multiplied
As of a cataract from the mountain’s side,
Or roar of winds upon a wooded steep.
So comes to us at times, from the unknown
And inaccessible solitudes of being,
The rushing of the sea-tides of the soul;
And inspirations, that we deem our own,
Are some divine foreshadowing and foreseeing
Of things beyond our reason or control.
(1875, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)
The ocean has been called a mother. And a mistress. And she is both in Jan-Willem van Ewijk’s second feature Atlantic. that premiered in the Discovery section of the 39th Toronto International Film Festival. The sea is beginning and destiny for the 32 year old Fettah, a Moroccan surfer and fisherman who embarks on a 1000 kilometre long journey from his native village Moulay Bouzarqtoune, close to the popular windsurf spot Essaouira, to Europe, 300 miles into open sea to bypass the military zone that separates Europe from Africa.
He addresses himself to the sea in his dreams. A soft-muttered voice-over expresses his thoughts, his memories, and his recollections. Words unspoken. Sentiments that are too fragile to survive the sound of speech.
Sometimes the sea acquires the face of his niece Wisal, the little girl he whispers to in the middle of the night: “Wisal, wake up, I have to go.” Sometimes she has the features of his cousin, whom he is willing to marry if he would earn enough money. But since the big international trawlers have reached the Moroccan coast with their fishing nets emptying out the sea, there is not much fortune left in the currents.
Sometimes the sea looks like Alexandra, a European surfer girl in whose eyes he recognizes his long lost mother’s eyes. Remember Ariel singing in William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “Those are pearls that were his eyes. Nothing of him that doth fade. But doth suffer a sea-change. Into something rich and strange. “Ariel might be singing here to Ferdinand who has just lost his father, but she is singing to Fettah too, who has lost his mother in the waves. His encounter with the enigmatic Alexandra symbolizes the yearning for escape thought the portal of love, like a mirror to the age-old opposition between presence and absence. Alexandra’s sea-blue eyes are gateways to that dimension of transformation, to that simultaneous feeling of mourning and loss.
At those moments the waters of the sea become a different means of transportation, sound waves and lightwaves morph into a mysterious frequency to both transport and transform memory and recollection into an eternal present, evoked by the melancholic music of Piet Swerts, Mourad Belouadi and Gervaise Demeure’s sound design.
Atlantic. is not so much a film about the sea, but a film ín the sea. As ambiguous, rich, elliptic, salty and time-looping as the waves and currents themselves, where time is ever present. The coastlines and tidelines, the surfboards carving the waves are all spectacularly filmed. Jasper Wolf’s camera is as free as the bird that Fettah speaks of. It flies as high as the seagulls in painterly and almost abstract helicopter shots, where sea and sand slowly merge inan interplay of waves. It circles and plunges between the sprays and the surfer’s sails as if diving for prey. It is not the loose narrative in this docufiction hybrid and ethnographic/extreme sports mixture that tells the story, but the images that invite us to experience the whole complex aura of being at sea.
In his poem “The Sound of the Sea” (1875) the American poet of the sea Henry Wadsworth Longfellow explores the mysterious origins of inspiration. An inspiration that in the melancholic voicing of the poem is described as essentially and existentially lonely (coming from a solitary place in the soul) and visionary, as the foreshadowing of something bigger than the human mind could grasp. This is perhaps what you could call love. Or art. Or divinity.
In Atlantic. something similar happens. The ocean is both source and subject of the film’s inspiration,it is Fettah’s ally and friend. It invites the spectator to explore the life questions the film generously raises.
Freedom is key in that quest. “What is freedom?”, Fettah asks himself one day when defying gravity, jumping, looping, summersaulting above the waves, lighter even than the froth and the foam. And he talks about the prize and the pain at which freedom is (re)gained.
There are many forms of freedom in Atlantic. Some are more existential, others more practical. There is the freedom of the European surfers to travel to Morocco with the newest wetsuits, boards and sails. Expensive gear. Expensive journeys. Even more expensive because of the economical inequality between the surfers and the locals. A cheap accommodation for one is a substantial source of income for the other. And because of the friendships that develop, it is money earned in shame. When Alexandra and her boyfriend Jan (played by the director himself) come to stay at Fettah’s place, he shyly hands the 2000 dirham (less than 200 euro) over to his niece Wisal and younger surfer Soufyan. Value and worth outbalanced
The freedom of the European surfers is not bought with money, it is also a human right — the freedom of passage — the Moroccan citizens do not automatically have access to. When the surfer’s caravan moves on, they remain, without passport, visa or credit card.
In Fettah’s soul however the desire for another kind of freedom has ignited. Of course he has a fine living in Moulay Bouzarqtoune — fishing in wintertime, letting his house to tourists in summer and in between working the occasional odd jobs in his cousin’s restaurant. But through the encounter with these strangers/friends he comes to see a world beyond the horizon that is as wide and ever changing as the Atlantic Coast. It might be sparked by Alexandra’s smile, a smile that may or may not mean something, an act of much needed kindness in his harsh world, a recollection of female softness that he lost when his mother died at sea when he was a kid.
Love awakens in his heart again, but it is the kind of love that will come with a loss. And he knows it. And yet he accepts and allows it. Because it is something bigger than love, much more akin to the emotion expressed in Longfellow’s poem: fathomless and healing at the same time. It is the kind of love that at a crucial part of the story, when he is all lost and lonesome, can assert: ‘I am here’. He is. He exists. In the middle of the endless sea. It is with the same natural confidence that he assures that ‘there will be wind’, when an elderly fisherman predicts what might become his lot.
It is the freedom and the bliss of the waves. Waves that are measured in beauty and fear. In humility and self-assurance.
And when they break on the shores of civilization it is the closely tied clash and bond between man and nature all over again.
When Fettah mounts his surfboard at the beginning of the film his journey is neither flight nor escape. It is fate. His story is not an ordinary refugee’s story, and if it is, it is because he is an existential refugee who embraces life.
Atlantic. draws the story of a Moroccan surfer who is trying to reach Europe over sea, navigating between the merciless waves of the Atlantic Ocean and the barren, unwelcoming Moroccan coast. There it intersects present and past, memory and lovelorn reverie. This is a true affirmation of life and a poetical and elegiac exploration of exile sung like a sailor’s song about the eternal maternal sea.
Edited by Yael Shuv
© FIPRESCI 2014