A Film a Week - Stories from the Sea

 previously published on Cineuropa

The sea is liberating. The sea is adventurous. The sea is creative. The sea is lively. Civilisations rise on its shores, and it sets out borders and offers contact across them. Seas have been crossed by people for ages and for all kinds of different reasons: sometimes hope, sometimes a need, sometimes an adventure and sometimes pure curiosity. All of the world’s seas have their own tomes of stories, but one in particular, the Mediterranean, holds a special place in recorded history and in terms of global cultural heritage, so it still serves as a huge source of inspiration. Polish-Austrian filmmaker Jola Wieczorek also drank from this same source, metaphorically speaking, for her directorial debut in the feature-length format, the documentary Stories from the Sea, which has just premiered at the Viennale.

The title also pretty much serves as a short description of the film, which consists of three stories from different types of vessels that cross the Mediterranean. Our first protagonist, Jessica, is an apprentice on a cargo ship, where she has spent nine months in a row learning the tricks of the trade and falling in with the crew. The second protagonist is Amparo, an elderly widow who goes on Mediterranean cruise trips, almost on a serial level. The third is a group character: the young people on board two sailing ships that have no set destination, since the goal is to imagine a new way of life with no racial, national, religious or ethnic divisions that, at the present time, can exist only in a vacuum, of sorts – and the sea is a great environment for such an experiment.

Wieczorek and her cinematographer, Seraphim Spitzer, follow their subjects closely, recording the specific worlds they live in, or which they try to create, in an artful, observational fashion, devoid of simple commentary, but with a taste that almost seems vintage thanks to Spitzer’s black-and-white cinematography. The sea and the ships as motifs serve perfectly as the connective tissue between the stories. In the first half of the film, the writer-producer-director also relies on the spot-on sound design by Nora Czamler to translate the pulse of those separate worlds to the film and uses the moody soundtrack by Julia Kent to paint the emotions, but also to divide the sections up into particular stories.

The trouble, however, emerges in the third act, in which the conclusions of the stories are all told simultaneously, instead of successively. The filmmaker probably adopted another angle to it, which is quite obvious from the fact that she “cast” her protagonists as females, and the traditions of the sea and ships in general tend to be full of superstition, which is just an extension of misogyny and chauvinism. The question, however, is whether Wieczorek has actually managed to make her point, especially given that Jessica is accepted by her colleagues, Amparo occupies the position of a passenger, bearing no discrimination, and the group character is simply a bunch of young people of both predominant genders, without even a hint of division along that line. In the end, Stories from the Sea offers as much as the title promises – the sea, stories, feelings and ideas.

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