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  • Writer's pictureLaurence Boag-Matthews

Blog, the first...

Updated: Jun 22, 2023

This June, Scarborough Film Festival showed shorts from a variety of genres to explore the many ways we experience being in water. Within the selection there is a diverse range of themes both within and across individual pieces as well as as a curated group.

Swimming in the Archive, Yorkshire and North East Film Archive (2023): these archive film clips set a fun and nostalgic tone, showing familiar places for those hailing from Scarborough and setting the tone with a strong focus on the community aspects of swimming which complement many of the subsequent shorts.

Maike Koller’s Swim (2018) follows an individual’s journey of learning to swim later in life. Koller’s fantastical animation style depicts all levels of the sea and swimming, reflecting the swimmer’s internal journey in their surroundings: from the shallows to the deep, from fear and apprehension to freedom and joy.

Dulce (2018) explores a community’s interactions with the sea as a way of life, following a mother teaching her daughter to swim. In this short understanding the power and danger of the sea is central. Dulce’s mother draws attention to the precarity of living right on the shore and the dependence on boats, the vital need to survive, to travel and to be able to follow their daily life cycles and routines, both work and leisure.

Dulce, Guille Issa, Angello Faccini 2018

In Finegan’s The Swimming Club (2016), the filmmaker visually evokes the cleansing and ritual dimensions that are historically linked with water though its religious connotations, alongside commentary and talking heads documenting the history of the Club and some of its members’ personal histories. The visual language of baptism evoking rebirth and freedom reflects the testimonies of the swimmers returning to swimming within this safe space after periods of feeling uncomfortable with or unwelcome in public bathing spaces.

Lynne Ramsay’s The Swimmer (2012) evokes a more individual and isolated personal experience of open water swimming following the odyssey-like journey of a swimmer through various waterways of Britain. Ramsay imbues the film with a timeless quality through the visual and audio choices: the use of black and white, music snippets, and dream-like half seen fragments of shore-based interactions which we seem to experience from the swimmer’s point of view contribute to the overall peaceful but sometimes unsettling tone.

Swimming Pool (2016), throws us back into the whimsical realm through animation that places the swimming pool as a sanctuary at the heart of the urban space. This short depicts a beautiful love story that highlights the ability for water to bring together and connect people despite their apparent differences.

Swimming Pool, Alexandra Majovà, 2016

Lili Dixon’s Immersion (2022) gives us a glimpse into the ties of friendship and joy a community has found through sea swimming combining documentary footage with talking heads of the swimmers discussing their personal journeys and experiences.

The Floater (2023) brings us face to face with the reality of mass sewage dumping by water companies and the havoc this has wreaked on communities of swimmers and surfers. The film serves as a call to action and unveils ‘the floater’, a surfboard made from the sewage being dumped into our waterways.

Themes of ownership and property, with the filmmakers exploring various ways in which water as a public space holds importance in various peoples lives comes through strongly in many of the films presented in the line up. For example, Dulce’s mother’s urgent insistence on her learning how to swim for survival. This film depicts the most indistinctly drawn lines between home and the sea, as they depend not only on the sea for leisure, but for transport, income and livelihood in general. In contrast, Alexandra Majova’s Swimming Pool approaches this theme from a more whimsical angle, the pool in this instance is implied to not be a public space, but the film revels in the main character’s gleeful journey to the pool and his meeting the other character. We are left to question whether it is the characters’ bodies or the private nature of the pool that would prohibit them from entering the space. The Swimming Club engages further with questioning narratives of which bodies are welcome within public bathing spaces and the effects of building inclusive spaces for trans- and gender nonconforming people to enjoy swimming within a community. The Floater foregrounds questions about the waterways as public assets, the rights we have to enjoy safe and clean seas and rivers, and the abuses by sewage companies of natural spaces which have become unsafe and unsanitary through their waste dumping in recent years.

Both Koller’s Swim and Ramsay’s The Swimmer explore swimming from a more individual perspective. The swimmers in both films embark on odyssey-esque journeys which explore ways we engage with water as a hostile environment or a liminal space. The Swimmer in particular leans into a timeless or out of time-ness quality that we may experience in the water. As raised by Steve Crawford in the Q&A, swimming and especially wild swimming during which we are subject to the whims of natural temperatures, tides, and currents, forces us to take time out of our land-based lives and switch off from the devices that we are constantly connected to. Ramsay portrays the titular swimmer as the constant presence running throughout an otherwise seemingly disconnected series of snippets of events on the banks of the waterways. We adhere closely to the perspective of the swimmer, Ramsay focuses mainly on extracting the maximum beauty of the landscapes and the movement of the swimmer with the water surrounding them through the cinematography, rather than providing any substantial narrative. The feeling of enjoying the beauty of nature and the environment that one is in when swimming seems to be the basis for this film. Koller’s Swim follows a lone swimmer experiencing the sea, but through the animation style and soundtrack provides a more lighthearted approach to swimming than The Swimmer or Dulce which also tells the story of its subject learning to swim. Koller manages to portray the vastness of the sea and hint to the danger present, while maintaining a light and fantastical tone through the colourful visuals and classical music choices.

The Swimmer, Lynne Ramsay, 2012

While there is a strong focus on how swimming affects us as individuals, ways in which it binds us and opens up connections within communities come through as perhaps the strongest themes, further discussed in the post-film Q&A. The Swimming Club in particular highlights how the strong community formed in the pool has the ability to provide sanctuary for its members who may otherwise feel unsafe in such spaces. The swimmers highlight the freedom and ‘serene power’ granted by swimming and bathing that they may have previously not felt able to engage with. Dulce in particular calls attention to the need to be able to swim in order to function as a member of the community in which she lives. We begin to see echoes of the environmental messages that will be foregrounded in The Floater, with Dulce’s mother reminding her of the rising sea levels which could endanger their home. However, the focus is on Dulce's journey to learn how to swim and the ways in which her fear and apprehension affect her mother who understands how vital swimming is in allowing her to navigate the community and eventually work and sustain herself. Immersion brings us back to home within direct-to-camera testimony from Scarborough-based swimmers about the friendship and joy they have found and fostered through sea swimming. Placing The Floater in dialogue with Dixon’s film intensifies the political message Surfers against Sewage voice. The emotional testimonies of the swimmers in Dixon’s film are shown directly before The Floater’s hard hitting message of the dangers many wild swimmers now face, which lends both films all the more impact, leaving us with an important message about our responsibilities to the natural world.

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