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Towards a filmmaking ecology

I was introduced to the world of sailing by my sister, who aged 19 and with no prior experience set off to work her way around the world’s oceans on various vessels, from shabby 34ft schooners to super yachts owned by millionaires. It’s not a cliché to say that she returned 4 years later changed by this rite of passage. What’s intriguing though, is her conversion to the philosophy of engineless sailing and all the real-world, ecological and mystical practices surrounding it. For her, removing the engine on her boat was not only removing a weight of reliance on fossil fuel to travel, but also helped her to commune more closely with nature, in the intimate ways she had savoured on her sea crossing adventures.

Through her, I have grasped the important link between sailing and filmmaking. Seafarers who sail without engines must closely attune themselves to their environment; improvising and responding in awareness to the intimate contact they have with its materiality. Their actions are those of care. Filmmakers in relation to their subject must respond in improvisation to the materiality of the world; recording, representing or revealing the reality of its objects. Their actions are those of care. Both are in the deepest sense, matters of ecology.

The philosopher Bruno Latour posits that “we don’t have the right imagination nor the psychological makeup to metabolize the flood of terrifying news pouring in everyday”, and in that sense the arts must cultivate our emotional resources, encouraging changes in representation. What we now know about the climate crisis effects how we make and consume art, but it does not mean we can only respond by making art about the crisis. With this in mind, my call is for the film industry to recognise and support those of us whose filmmaking practice is in itself a creative direct action for ecological regeneration, where our physical relationship with the materiality of the world - engrained in the methodology of our small-scale, low-budget, ecologically-attuned, and often improvisatory practice - can encourage in an audience an awareness and care for our planet as a way of thinking and feeling ecologically; just as important as the advocacy films and drive to reduce carbon in the industry. 

This film will explore and develop ecology in the widest sense; as a practice and a subject.

Huw Wahl - Filmmaker


Today almost every sailing boat has an engine which manoeuvres the vessel in and out of dock, pushes against a fast flowing tide, and allows travel even when there is no wind. For the majority of sailing history this would have been unimaginable, yet in current times most mariners cannot fathom leaving harbour without one. In order for a seafarer to unlearn their reliance on the immediacy of mechanised power, they must first rely on human skill to enter into deep conversation with the natural world, tapping into and understanding what it means to flow. Sailing in this way is not simply the recall of a lost art, but a development of skills passed down through millennia; a re-making of connections to seas, rivers and stars; and a continual questioning of the place of human beings in it all.

The handful of sailors who still practice this ancient way of travelling steer in a variety of directions: some work on traditional vessels that never had engines and continue this important heritage; a number are intent on mastering the vast set of skills that accompany sailing without aid; and others are drawn by the unutterable beauty, connection and value of such a practice. What binds them together is the understanding that sailing engineless is a process of being deeply present, of listening to the surrounding world, and being attuned to every glimmering change. To render these experiences in film demands an equally attuned filmmaking practice, attentive to flow and balance.

Under Wind, Tide and Oar will go deep into the grit of seafaring in its many forms, paying attention to sailing in the same way that sailing pays attention to the environment, producing an intimate and sensitive meditation on what it means to travel and live this way. Starting on the east coast of England we will meet those who dedicate their lives to the sea: an 85ft Thames sailing barge used for sail training and cargo hauling; a 22ft gaff rigged cutter being refitted by a 26 year old female sailor who has recently removed her diesel engine; a 42ft Bermuda rigged steel ketch inhabited and sailed with no electronic aids by an experienced male sailor who is working towards an epic Arctic trip; and a 35ft wooden fishing smack built in 1889 and now cared for by a young female sailor who is tentatively learning traditional seafaring. All these vessels and their owners are linked by the physical work of sailing, the elements which propel them, and the diverse range of philosophies that hold them true to their course. These experiences, which cross social class, race gender and age, stand in stark contrast to our present day engagement with the sea; that of pollution, extraction and exploitation.

While focussing primarily on engineless sailing the film is acutely aware of a very different encounter with open water, that of migrant boat crossings, life-threatening conditions and tragedy. It will acknowledge and seek dialogue with these experiences and their ramifications within the film.


Affect, look and feel of the film

Under Wind, Tide and Oar will pursue a poetic approach to the filmmaking process in order to develop an intimate response to those at sea, their lived environment and material reality. Taking aesthetic cues from environmental filmmakers like Malena Szlam (Altiplano, 2018) and Peter Hutton (Study of a River, 1997) and influenced by the ecological approaches of artist filmmakers such as Ben Rivers (Ghost Strata, 2019) and Rob Petit & Robert MacFarlane (Upstream 2019) and initially inspired by a 16mm surf film by Jeremy Rumas featuring a unique sailor named Chuck (Hangs Upon Nothing, 2014), it will explore the visceral movements, colours and forms inherent in ocean voyaging, while uncovering a closely felt and intimately driven portrayal of the seafarers rhythms, gestures and experiences.

Immersive sound design will juxtapose and interact with the striking images to expand key ideas, themes and philosophies running through the film. In field recordings, conversations, thoughts, readings, music and songs of the sea, we will learn about histories, cultures and desires that tie together the past, present and imagined futures of both sailing and ecological change.

The director’s accomplished 16mm practice and the use of vivid film stock shot using a 1960s hand-cranked camera will add to the ‘out of ordinary time’  qualities of the project, aligning the flow of filmmaking with that of traditional ocean navigation, and developing a unique conversation between the two practices’ characteristics of presence, patience, turbulence and drama.

The resulting film will utilise a materially present and responsible filmmaking practice - grounded in the experiential - to carry an audience towards an experience of shared connectedness; underlining sailing’s vital ecological quality and importance.


Who is involved

The Barn Arts, a multi-arts centre in Aberdeenshire Scotland with years of experience in ecological thinking and making, will help develop a rigorous ecological rationale and campaign from start to finish.

The Sea Change Sailing Trust, who provide residential sailing trips to young people and adults on their newly built Thames Sailing Barge Blue Mermaid, will both be a key filming location and help to build a screening schedule to the sailing community.

LUX will provide mentoring through the project to help it grow and develop, and key links to film networks for screening and distribution.


Outcomes and reach

The project is intended to be fully accessible to an audience with no prior knowledge of sailing. It will be screened at documentary and artist’s film festivals internationally, shown through sailing trusts, maritime museums and institutions, and used to develop interest in sailing for an ecologically sustainable future. It will encourage vital and timely debates around ecology and mental health, and lead to further events that explore these topics and related environmental campaigns.

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