East End Film Festival: Dead Slow Ahead

Directed by Mauro Herce

by Lewis Church

The scale of the Fair Lady is unsettling. She’s a giant cargo ship, hauling goods across oceans and dwarfing the ant crew that maintain and support her nearly 40,000-ton weight. Dead Slow Ahead is just over an hour of a near silent documentary, showing the journey of the ship across an ocean and smaller seas through framed instances of industrial silhouettes and the riveted innards of its hold. It is not a documentary with a narrative, it doesn’t tell a story or have a point but instead presents what is, at times, a rather dispassionate aesthetic assessment of the logistic processes of trade. It is a film to let wash over you, to sit and have unfurl from the screen like a breaking wave.

Postcard scenes from the cargo’s journey, and flashes of the lives that operate the vessel are what the film is made up of in its entirety. Almost frustrating glimpses of biography appear throughout, whether in the karaoke choices of the multinational crew (Neil Sedaka, incidentally) or the snatches of conversation between them and their dry-land family that subtitle the last section of the film. The cinematography is the main show here, not the people or even the journey, and it is stunning in places. Urban ports and endless ocean horizons play out across the camera span, just as corridors and piping are positioned to loom out of the darkness like strange and alien metal intestines. Shadows and light play tricks with the viewer’s eye, scale and perspective conspiring against making any quick sense of what you are seeing. The unbelievable size of the ship, its sheer magnitude, makes it look like some science fiction set or near future dystopia, and the detachment of the cinema frame only emphasises this strangeness.

It must be this that is the reason for making the film, to present the textures of an operation that we all rely on and yet mostly know nothing about. These itinerant behemoth ships lumber through the oceans to bring us the wheat used to make our bread, or the coal to generate our electricity, but rarely seem to be part of our lives. This film is an un-explaining picture of what we don’t think of and yet know is there. Dead Slow Ahead is unfamiliar in its form, and remote in tone, but then so is international haulage. As a viewing experience it is fulfilling if not engrossing, a stylish film and a formal experiment, rather than a documentary to learn from directly. Approach it as such.



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