A group of waitresses in starched white uniforms stand awkwardly in a row, fiddling with their hair and giggling nervously by the seaside promenade as they try to keep still, unsure whether the camera is taking a photograph or film. They seem to be looking us straight in the eye, and the effect is charming but strangely unsettling. One of many fragments of history which documentary director Penny Woolcock has put together in this opening night film, From The Sea To The Land Beyond is a nostalgic and creative collage of Britain’s romance with the sea, and draws out of the dust some beautiful archive footage of a nation’s habits, holidays and social history.
Using archive footage of the British seaside from the last hundred years, Woolcock has woven together a beautiful ‘found footage’ film about Britain and her changing landscape. This genre is enjoying a resurgence it seems, with Bill Morrison’s The Miners’ Hymns also being shown here at the Doc/Fest. The film is presented in collaboration with indie band British Sea Power, who provide a joyously soaring live score, combining songs from their back catalogue with new music written especially for the film. Ocasionally sound from the films on show bleed into the score – we hear foghorns, seagulls, a net being dragged on the beach. The archive footage is rich and varied, with an emphasis on the romantic and the ritualistic, on seaside games and fashions, and footage of industry, whether it be the gutting and tinning of sardines or heavy machinery. Archival l sources vary from the Mitchell & Kenyon travelling film company, Topical Budget newsreels, British Transport films and the Central Office of Information (COI) archives.
There were truly, memorably beautiful moments throughout. For example, we see a group of experimental female dancers move in formation along a pristine beach; we join two girls in ‘50s fashions eat icecream in a seaside cafe; we laugh as a group of Edwardian gentlemen play daft games by the seaside. Footage is presented in a roughly chronological manner, with various images from the past or present interspersed in a moving and effective way, tying the film together and bringing it back cyclically.
In the queue for the free hog roast, I got chatting to a fellow audience member who expressed frustration at the lack of obvious social commentary – she felt like the wars, strikes and loss of certain industries were glanced over very briefly. This was partly true, as two World Wars glided past us in a crescendo of multi-instrumentals. Although Woolcock explored briefly the increased commercialisation of the seaside experience with footage (perhaps from the late ‘50’s or ‘60s) of shopping baskets and various commodities, we otherwise see little to nothing of the modern seaside – of litter, pollution, and chain hotels. Woolcock wallows in a beautiful past, with only a brief glance at the now in the form of some miserable Brits moaning about the weather. However, she was honest about this in her introduction, commenting that the archives get worse with the introduction of video.
The film put its emphasis – successfully, in my opinion- on the filmic experience rather than socio-political detail. It isn’t telling a story so much as creating a mood, and boy does it do that. I cried twice, and had goosebumps throughout, and others did too. This is more about being swept away by the romance, the beauty, and the every-changing tide of history.
It is very easy for people to assume that something beautiful has nothing to say. In From The Sea To the Land Beyond, the beautiful has been selected from the more contentious with little in the way of focused editing or cutting, leaving one with the feeling of seeing something perfect and enjoyable, but shallowly so. This film is unapologetically enjoyable, and my highlight of Sheffield Doc/Fest.