Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan's Episode of the Sea (2014) is exclusively showing October 22 – November 21, 2018 on MUBI.
I first came upon the work of Dutch artists Lonnie van Brummelen and Siebren de Haan at the experimental Wavelengths sidebar at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival. Their poised, quietly accusatory short landscape film View from the Acropolis
was a standout, and in the Q&A afterwards the two seemed to come from quite another world than the avant-garde filmmakers around them. Their subsequent feature, Episode of the Sea
, which also premiered at Wavelengths, confirmed the sense: these weren’t filmmakers by training, they were artists who have discovered in film a medium most expressive of the rich, inquisitive vectors which inform their projects that have taken the form of texts, books, sculptures, and installations, but which feel best gathered and processed in their films.
Episode of the Sea superficially leaves behind the expansive vision of the duo’s previous projects to focus on the emblematic Dutch fishing village of Urk, a community considered strikingly conservative, religious, and old-fashioned by the greater Netherlands, but which van Brummelen and de Haan approach as collaborators in order to create a hybrid ethnographic-dramatic documentary on Urker fishermen. Filmed in lustrous black and white 35mm from a script developed through extensive interviewing and research combined with written and directorial revision by the Urkers themselves, Episode of the Sea tells in several chapters—each titled and followed by explanative, somewhat playful texts—the remarkable longevity and persistence of the Urk fishing community across changes in time, the economy, technology, and globalization.
Nominally traditional sequences of fishing process—shot with classical clarity on the boats at sea, in contradistinction to the sensorial impressionism found in Verena Paravel and Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s Leviathan (2012)—are interspersed with “dramatic” scenes of local Urkers conversing and declaiming on their work and livelihood shot in a style strongly reminiscent of the forceful, absolutely present performances in films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. Both the process scenes and the dramas emerged from tight collaboration between the artists and the locals—whose community has a strong amateur theatre and choral presence—a bond which increased as the economic difficulties of the Urkers were mirrored in those of van Brummelen and de Haan, who found the Dutch government radically slashing cultural funding beginning in 2011 at the same time as a principle institution backing the film, the Museum De Paviljoens in Almere, closed in 2013.
The desire and the need to work—as fishermen, as artists—makes Episode of the Sea the fulcrum of a stalwart group trying to make their old world values subsist in a rapidly changing present. The balance never tips too far to the Dutch artists—this is a portrait of the Urk fishermen, after all—but the film is nothing if not self-aware of the interaction between the filmmakers and their subjects, and how their subject turns around and becomes a part of them.
We spoke with one of the film’s co-directors, Lonnie van Brummelen, about the origins and making of her and Siebren de Haan's unique film and how they collaborated with the Urkers. Special thanks to Matthew Flanagan.
NOTEBOOK: Since the only previous work by you and Siebren I've seen is View from the Acropolis, can you tell me about your other films? Are they also landscape films like that one?
LONNIE VAN BRUMMELEN: Mostly landscape films. Actually, the first piece that brought us to Toronto was Grossraum (Borders of Europe) , a landscape film about three border sites. It is just silent landscapes of border crossings, one the crossing between Poland and Ukraine, we filmed at the 1st of May, 2004, when the border was declared to be the edge of the European Union, and it was a lake and a forest, and we’d just pan through the forest: like a landscape painting, basically. We filmed the Ceuta, the border between Morocco and Spain, because there are two Spanish enclaves on Africa. We filmed the smuggling, but it all took place in the landscape. We also filmed the divided capital of Cyprus. And then we made a book of all the letters we had to write to get permission to make these silent landscapes, these shots.
NOTEBOOK: Are there images as well, in the book?
BRUMMELEN: Yes, some stills from the film. We also included a report of our on-site experiences; for example, in Cyprus there was this strange situation where we always had a group of military following us, and they would then carry our stuff, since they were there anyway. But most of the shots were made from the Green Line, which is dividing Cyprus, and since they were Greek military they were not allowed to go on the other side. So they had to undress themselves and put on civilian clothings—so the book is full of these kinds of experiences.
NOTEBOOK: Because you couldn't shoot that.
BRUMMELEN: Right. It’s what happened behind the camera.
NOTEBOOK: Except for the opening, you practically elide landscape in Episode of the Sea in favor of medium shots of objects and actions, as well as, of course, the dramatic scenes. Was it always intended that you would shoot this project in this way? No landscape of Urk, for example?
BRUMMELEN: The fishermen, they have their ships in other harbors. Urk has a very small harbor because it’s now situated on a lake, so the place where they work is not in Urk, actually. We did of course shoot some industrial “landscapes” more on the sea. In the other films when I say “landscape,” I don’t always mean like a mountain, but it can be an industrial landscape, harbor activity, things we’ve shown in other films as well. Maybe I can introduce our approach through describing another project we did. After Grossraum, we did another project call Monument of Sugar , because when we were shooting at the Polish-Ukrainian border we were standing on the land of a Polish farmer, and at one point he came to us, offering us coffee and sausages, and when he handed us the sugar, he said that Polish sugar had become twice as expensive since they’ve joined the European Union; the price had multiplied just from one day to the next. It was now even cheaper to buy Polish sugar in Ukraine than in Poland. It was so intriguing! When we got home we started exploring, and found that Europe has this beet sugar industry which is actually quite expensive to produce, much more expensive to produce than cane sugar. Europe has a price floor, so that those who produce sugar in Europe can ask quite a high price. Foreign producers who want to import to Europe have to pay a lot of tax, so their sugar becomes more expensive that sugar that’s produced in Europe. But when its exported, the European sugar, it’s subsidized, so it becomes comparable on the world market. We discovered that the majority of the sugar was going to Nigeria—which is really weird because Nigeria has good conditions for growing sugar cane. So we went to Nigeria to look for this European sugar, and our plan was to make a monument, a sculpture of sugar blocks from that, and then to ship it back home, because that way we could elude the trade barrier for sugar imports. So we made a monument and a film about it. But when we came to Nigeria we met all these people who helped us and there was somehow no place for that interaction in the film, because the focus was the sugar. So we filmed hands, landscapes. So it was a long-standing wish that we would have other people in the film; people who would speak for themselves instead of us speaking for them.
NOTEBOOK: From past productions, it sounds like you are as interested in what ends up happening behind the camera as what happens in front, so you decided to push those things together on Episode of the Sea.
NOTEBOOK: Did this project then begin with that in mind, to collaborate with the Urkers?
BRUMMELEN: It started because the Paviljoens Museum invited us to do field work in Urk. We did want to make a work in the Netherlands, after so much working away, and also because so much had changed, the country has become quite conservative and right-wing, and we were wondering how that happened. Actually, a lot of artists have fled the Netherlands, so this was once more a reason to dive into that. So when they proposed this, to go to Urk, we were like, [disdainfully] “Oh, Urk”—it has this reputation of being really conservative and Christian.
NOTEBOOK: And as you were saying in the audience Q&A in Toronto, Urk is shown on television quite a bit.
BRUMMELEN: The cliches of it, yes. Certain things you always see. It’s not that there have been many documentaries made about Urk, but it’s more like if, for example, it’s elections, then they will film the conservative party when it visits this community, so it’s always represented in one particular way. But when we arrived there we had immediate spontaneous contact with many of these fishermen, who told us these crazy stories; even on the first day we were hearing how they were hiding fish in their ships! It was amazing. Also, it was in the period that the Dutch government had announced these budget cuts, really severe for culture, like 35%. The prime minister said something like, “And we do that because the artists are standing with their backs to the audience, and with their wallet open to the government.” Like you were a castaway, or a parasite. So first you need to raise money for yourself without government subsidy, and you now have a bad reputation as well. So one of the first conversations we had with the fishermen—we wrote this into the film—was that we had an image problem. It was so funny, because they said, “yeah but don’t worry, we have that too! You should just explain yourself…” Immediately we had this unexpected click with them.
NOTEBOOK: That's one of the things I found most surprising about the film, this complicity or comradeship shared between two entirely different vocations.
That was very important for us, that they would be able to tell their own story and have their own influence.
NOTEBOOK: You've said that the film originated from a very long script that you then handed over to the locals. Was it notes, or dialog, or a structure for the film? What was this document you had before filming?
BRUMMELEN: It was like, the fishermen would be out on the water during the week and at home during the weekend. So we would see them every Saturday, some of them, there were about 30 people that we saw, and 10 of them we had really intense dialogues with. We visited them for lengthy conversations about their trade and sometimes a little about ours—so that was really an exchange. We recorded these, just like you are recording this. And then during the week we wrote out everything word for word. We had a whole package of transcripts, and there were some things that were recurring all the time, so we condensed these things into scenes, and we presented that again to them. They made their remarks, and we took the feedback.
NOTEBOOK: That was primarily, then, for their dramatic scenes? Not so much for determining what unspoken elements were in the film?
BRUMMELEN: No, we had a written out scenario, also describing the landscapes, and then we go onto the sea. It was very funny when they read that, they said, “Oh, that’s beautiful, yes I can see that happening.” [laughs]
NOTEBOOK: The resulting script came from a year spent researching in Urk to determine the narrative and contents of the picture?
BRUMMELEN: Yes, but we always wanted to have this...what we now have in the scrolling titles, but we weren’t quite sure in the beginning what would be the perspective of that. Actually, we thought that we should speak it, and we tried to speak it, as a voiceover, but it became so much talking. Also, should it be Dutch? That would be a bit odd, but if we try it in Urkish dialog they’d say “no, no, no; you shouldn’t do that.”
NOTEBOOK: The tone of those scrolling titles quite surprised me. While the film is quite sad in many places, and I wouldn't say it was a funny film, there is a great deal of self-aware humor in it, which I think we start to recognize from the tone of those texts. What made you want to have this touch?
BRUMMELEN: I think it’s in all our texts. We often work through trial and error, and this was also part of the exchange with them, and also from their way of speaking.
NOTEBOOK: One of the things that struck me most strongly, even in scenes of the Urkers complaining about their livelihood, is that there is a sense of genuine enjoyment of the acting, of acting their own roles. You see them as a positive spirit even when recounting negative aspects.
BRUMMELEN: Yes, and it’s real, it’s about real things, about whole companies, family companies degrading in a very short period of time. I remember there was this one fisherman—he was one of those who didn’t want to perform because of religious reasons—who spoke about his ship, that his ship had gone to Ghent, and it had to be scrapped there, and said, “we would have preferred another last destination.” It was humorous, but also very sad. It was already there when we talked to them, it was their way of dealing with their own sorrows. I think it was also that we were both in a rather sad situation in that not only the funding withdrawal for the film, but also the Dutch film lab closed during production, and Fuji stopped producing new material. The fishermen also had to bring their ships to Ghent to stop fishing, so it was all these things. Because we were both experiencing similar things but in really different fields it was also sort of comforting. That you would see someone in a field that you’d think has a completely different life, but is going through similar experiences. What was also something we had not anticipated was that there was lots of understanding; there was also not understanding, but they were interested in why we would do certain things, just as we were interested in why they did certain things. I remember we had a conversation—I’m a vegetarian and I was really appalled by them killing the fish all the time, so many fish, this activity of endless slaughter. We asked them if they didn’t have any feelings about that. And they said, “yeah, but my father taught me, and he had been taught by his grandfather, and nowadays you’re expected to have feelings with everything you do.” I thought it was interesting that when you look at such a unity, there’s on the one hand this level with which you can communicate with each other, completely understanding what the other is speaking about, but then there are these things that come from some ancestral practice that’s really not ours, you know? They wouldn’t understand, for example, why we worked with this analog film camera which we reloaded every four minutes. But we also explained ourselves by referring to our forefathers, the tradition of cinema. It was really nice how a kind of mutual understanding developed for the things we could understand and also for the things we couldn’t understand. A respect for the things we couldn’t understand, because it comes from a different tradition, somehow.
NOTEBOOK: In the film it seems to open a transmutation of the current time to these fishermen's deeper history, hundreds of years. In this comparison, did you feel like your history as filmmakers was then much shorter, less ancient than theirs, a discrepancy in the span of tradition?
BRUMMELEN: We’re coming from a tradition of art, and while I can’t speak for other filmmakers, I always feel more artist than a filmmaker. So, if they speak of the Middle Ages or the 17th century of there already being quotas for herring, for example, because if there were no quotas even back then the herring would vanish, we also refer, for example, to documentary painting traditions in the Netherlands in the same time periods. In that sense, we both have a long history. But the killing, it goes back much further, to the Stone Age. Yet, on the other hand, in the Stone Age people also made cave drawings, so.... That was one of the first things that we noticed, that we both had this long tradition and really loved to speak about it.
Did you always want to start the film with women?
BRUMMELEN: Yeah, I think so. It was always in the beginning because it introduces this kind of “catastrophe,” this initial catastrophe, and also because I found it puzzling that there’s no women in the film. That’s why we really wanted to have the women upfront.
NOTEBOOK: And you didn't want to show them in town, or at home, or on the docks? There's that one woman later in the film indoors, as well as the women in the processing factory, but otherwise none.
BRUMMELEN: It’s more that we focused on the labor. Actually, these fishermen live in two worlds: they live in the world on the boat, which is with their mates; and then there’s the world at home, which is with their family. We wanted to focus on their work life, and our own work life; it felt like a logical position.
NOTEBOOK: You follow the women's introduction of the area's history with a scene of women working in the processing plant—the end of the processing line. Why did you want to take this sequence of the order of the rest of the film, which otherwise shows the fishing process chronologically?
BRUMMELEN: We wanted to immediately bring in the industry. You see these frozen fish, which are ready for the market. We thought it was nice that you’d have these women in the field, going way back into tradition and history, it has something very old, somehow, an almost mythological past, and then you have the industrial scene which brings you into the “now.” It was actually one of the last editing decisions, if we should switch that scene for the fish auction, which is now at the end. But rhythmically it felt better to have it like this, and also formally it was nice to have these fish which come out of the freezing machine like small boards, and then we cut to the wooden boards of the ship, with the title.
NOTEBOOK: Let's talk about the staging, or the direction, of the dialog scenes. They remind me very much of the direction of Straub and Huillet's films.
BRUMMELEN: After the Grossraum piece, we didn’t know Straub’s films, but someone said, “you really should look at those films, they have something in common.” And we quite recognized how we explore the landscape and find this place to put the camera. We really felt something in common there. So we started exploring the other films they made, for example, Klassenverhältnisse [Class Relations, 1984] we really liked. Actually, we gave the fishermen a kind of workshop after we had written the scenario and told them they were going to perform that, and we showed pieces of Klassenverhältnisse to say, “this is what non-professional acting performances can look like,” because they said, “oh, we’re not really actors, we can’t do that…” So we showed examples of how it could work. We showed La terra trema , something of Bresson, we told them about Jean Rouch and the participating camera, and all these things. That was really nice because then we had a kind of shared vocabulary, and we’d even refer to scenes, “ah, that one scene in Klassenverhältnisse when the guy knocks on the door…”
NOTEBOOK: Did you, too, use these filmmakers as a guide to your practice?
BRUMMELEN: Yes, because we only had experiences with landscapes, and those were things we taught ourselves. I was trained in the painting department and Siebren is a philosopher. Filmmaking is something we really had to learn by ourselves. By watching what other people do, and learning that there are new paths we can explore. But it was also interesting that we started out with this Straubian mode and then somewhere the Urkers got more used to filmmaking and said, “we can speed up a little bit” or “we can do it a bit like that,” so it was an on-going negotiation or process of how to proceed. We always prepared a shot list or a storyboard of little drawings, but then they might say, “but I can walk like that” or “I can say it a bit louder,” and we adapted sometimes what they would be more likely to say. More improvised.
NOTEBOOK: Were you satisfied with the results of this non-actors directorial experiment?
BRUMMELEN: I must say, we had to get used to this footage—a lot. Also, in our previous films we used landscape material and worked with scrolling titles, as in this film. Scrolling titles are really flexible, you can afterwards still change a sentence, or the order, or speed. And landscape you can change the order of shots, making things different, shifting the focus. With these staged scenes: that’s it! There’s hardly anything you can do. This we really had to get used to.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned at the audience Q&A that you almost shot the film with a 1:1 footage shot to footage used ratio. Does that include the dramatic scenes?
BRUMMELEN: Particularly the dramatic scenes! It was really funny, even in the beginning when we would try to direct them, they’d immediately say, “No, that’s not how we say things,” and sometimes we would do two takes and you could literally exchange the sound, it was exactly the same.
NOTEBOOK: Some are amateur theatre actors?
BRUMMELEN: About half/half. There was also no time for rehearsal, so each shot would be preceded by endless discussion about proper phrasing, and they would all be involved in that: “No, you should use that word.” Most were shot in the first take.
NOTEBOOK: It sounds like based on Mountain of Sugar that you and Siebren have filmed "process" before.
BRUMMELEN: Yeah, and we also did before a kind of self-reflective writing on what you learned during a project, the difficulties you encounter, the misconceptions you had. Those kinds of things are often in our films, but what was really new was sound—this really direct sound—and the staging. This intense collaboration was also quite new, and we felt extra responsible that it would be, how do I say it, a good movie, because they had put so much effort, given up all their free Saturdays, told us about their life, and what is important for them.
NOTEBOOK: Was this collaboration you've arrived at something particular to this project or will it be a methodology for the future?
BRUMMELEN: We really liked the co-authorship. I’m sure we’ll take it to the next project. What was interesting for us to experience, also, was that we invited these fishermen to enter this co-authorship but what we hadn’t realized was that all these other co-authors came with them: like the ancestors, peddlers at the market, the fish buyer, and also the migration of the fish, and the weather. There was so little control for us, actually. I think for the next time we’ll be more aware of this from the start.
NOTEBOOK: I feel like I have to ask: have you two seen the film Leviathan?
BRUMMELEN: Of course. We started, I think, almost simultaneously with them [Leviathan’s directors, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel]. I haven’t seen the whole film; I’ve seen them talk about it, and seen parts of it, so I can imagine what kind of film it is, and it’s really interesting they did this kind of experiment. They really are on the other side, they made this monolithic material experience, and we really wanted to show this composite of different actors acting, like this extensive co-authorship where all these different forces are “directing,” so to speak. It’s a really different film.
NOTEBOOK: It's probably inevitable that they will be compared.
BRUMMELEN: It’s quite interesting, actually, because they are filmmakers from their background. And they make this work which looks like an art work. And we come from the art world and our work looks like a film! [laughs] We both stepped over that boundary to the other discipline.
NOTEBOOK: Do you see this film as a strong political intervention, like your past works?
BRUMMELEN: In a way, it actually is. What we are experiencing in the Netherlands and I think is probably a worldwide phenomenon, is that groups are increasingly more isolated and played against each other. The experience where artists are now scapegoated suddenly is just adding to a longer experience: it was the migrants and then it was the Poles, and then it was the fishermen, and then the farmers, and then the bankers. Each time one group is targeted, and I think what we tried to do in the film was bridge that gap between groups. In that sense, it’s a political film. Maybe even more political than other films that we made which are more “about” political topics.