“It’s impossible to go anywhere, that’s the prisoner feeling. This is a happy prisoner, I guess.”
Félix Lamarche’s debut feature film, almost entirely set aboard the Dutch freighter Marietje Andrea, is bound up in the listless current of sailors’ lives. At times reminiscent of Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead (2015) – though Far Away Lands rarely attempts the same phenomenological plunge into life at sea – Lamarche is more focused on the people rather than their experience, and the film is a gentle series of portraits. We’re witness to these crew members in work and leisure, alone and together, as they wait out their lives on the dreams of seeing new land and returning home.
One sailor, a father who missed the birth of his child but will soon return for her first birthday, proudly shares live images of his ten-month old daughter with the camera via a webcam and app on his smartphone; a cook talks about how lucky he is to have this job after wearing out multiple pairs of shoes looking for work back home; a young man struggles to hold himself together while losing himself in the mystery of two sailors lost overboard on an earlier voyage; another man wishes to become a teacher so he can tell students how difficult life is aboard a vessel.
Observational, with a wide berth – Far Away Lands is not interested in constructing its own insular vision of life at sea (notwithstanding the myriad number of ways any and all documentaries do so), and doesn’t try to push its audience or play with their sense of perception. Small abstractions are welcome, given that the calmness to its formal approach can become monotonous, such as close ups of waves going by, as if the camera is whipping past the water on a rail. This motif is later re-contextualized once the sailors are on land, as the camera whips past scenery in a rushing car, namely the sun darting through close crops of trees. The shot is sped up until the image is conflated with the earlier one of the sea, before the film itself cuts back to the image of the sea running past.
The montage is stunning, and the formal intonation of the film’s undercurrent even more so. Even once they are safely ashore, with their feet planted firmly on the ground, these sailors’ lives are aquatic, bound to the motion and cadence of the sea.
Bound by choice, or necessity, from a longing to see the world to a need to provide for their families, the crew of Marietje Andrea are given a voice. Even if Far Away Lands can veer towards dull, safe documentary filmmaking – it doesn’t find a way to sustain its rhythm for its running time – its generous portraits keep the film moored.