Diving in

Jan-Willem van Ewijk in conversation about windsurf drama Atlantic.

by Leo Bankersen

Van Ewijk: 'They want the same things as we do, but they hardly get the chance to escape poverty and enter Fort Europe'
Van Ewijk: 'They want the same things as we do, but they hardly get the chance to escape poverty and enter Fort Europe'
"When shooting the windsurf scenes for Atlantic. almost everybody got seasick once in a while", director Jan-Willem van Ewijk tells me when I meet him shortly before the Dutch premiere of the film - which is on release at cinemas in the UK now. In this brave production that had its first screening in Toronto 2014, a young Moroccan windsurfing fisherman dreams of a future beyond the horizon. On his surfboard he dares to attempt the long and perilous crossing to Europe.

The making of this Dutch production was a big adventure in itself. The the migration theme is presented here in a striking way, combining realism and attention to character details with a poetic touch and impressive images of the wide open ocean. Even before premiering in the Netherlands, it was already well received ata number of international festivals.

Not bad, this being only the second feature of Van Ewijk, who worked as an aeroplane designer before he made switched to filmmaking. He is also an experienced windsurfer himself. Coincidence?

"I believe no director would have been crazy enough to shoot for two weeks on the open sea. It is something you only do when you're a windsurfer yourself."

This was the sport that brought him, in 2002, to the Moroccan fishing village Bouzerktoun, which is an important location in Atlantic.

Jan-Willem van Ewijk: 'The longing for freedom became an important theme'
Jan-Willem van Ewijk: 'The longing for freedom became an important theme'
"The young men I got to know there at that time didn't practice any surfing themselves yet. But they fixed the broken equipment left behind by tourists and taught themselves how to use it. They even became very good at it. Boujmaa Guilloul [who features in the film] is now one of the best windsurfers of the world.

"We, as Europeans, had a big influence there. In the beginning I thought this was great, but later I came to see the downside of it. Our presence stirred up their dreams and longings. They want the same things as we do, but they hardly get the chance to escape poverty and enter Fort Europe. That struck me.

"In 2008 I went back to the neighbouring village Moulay to develop the plan for the film. The longing for freedom became an important theme."

This fits very well with the intention of the 'Atlantic.' protagonist to reach Europe on his surfboard. For, as Van Ewijk explains: "A strong feeling of freedom is what you're experiencing when you are windsurfing."

Lead actor Fettah Lamara is from that same village. "He is a very good windsurfer and owns the little restaurant where I often came to sit and write," says Van Ewijk. "He married a woman from France. I was curious about him, but he held off at first. Also, the producer was quite hesitant about giving such an important part to someone with no acting experience. So at first I organised auditions with professional Moroccan actors, but the problem was they didn't know how to surf. Eventually I was able to do a camera test with Fettah. As soon as he began to act, everybody fell silent. He was really great. He is a born actor."

Before this film van Ewijk had only made the road movie Nu. (Now), a modest low budget film realised with friends. When making Atlantic. he had a serious budget of 1.8 million euros at his disposal. Without any real filmmaking education, he was now suddenly leading a professional crew of a hundred people. "The set was my academy."

Fettah Lamara in Atlantic.
Fettah Lamara in Atlantic.
The shooting at sea, in particular, turned out to be very hard. Sometimes a big part of the crew, including cameraman Jasper Wolf, had to float about in wetsuits in the waves.

"I thought, 'What have I got myself into', I often despaired," says van Ewijk. "But we had to carry on, too much money was already invested. Together we were fighting to reach the finish. I lost 20lbs in weight, just like Jasper and Fettah.

"During the shoot, I was surviving with just as much difficulty as Fettah in the film on his surfboard, I now realise."

Atlantic. is not only a surf story. It's about the encounter with a young woman that stirs a new longing, but also about the things Fettah's character leaves behind. His late mother, the village life, his little sister whom he takes into his confidence. It's all about his big step, his jump into the unknown.

"When, during the edit, I was reflecting upon all this I thought:'This is also about me, about my big decision to become a filmmaker.

"When I was a teenager I dreamt about very different things. I was drawing comics with space stations and planes. I am trained to build planes and have worked as a designer of business jets. Later on, I joined an investment company focussing on internet startups. When all that collapsed because of the stock market crash I got into a crisis. 'What happened to the boy who was creative, who liked to draw and photograph,' I thought. In a bar in Barcelona I met a filmmaker, and after a few drinks too many I confided to him that in my opinion he had the best profession in the world. He said to me: 'Why don't you just try'.

"At home I started writing a screenplay, and after the first sentence I knew it already - this is what I have to do! That became my first fiction film, the feature Nu. It was a very strong urge, all that pent-up creativity of the years before came to the surface. That's how it started."

Watch the trailer:

  • Atlantic is on limited release in the UK now, for more information about the film, visit the Facebook page
  • Leo Bankersen is a freelance film critic, based in the Netherlands. A long-time reviewer and interviewer for the newspapers of the Netherlands Press Association (GPD), until 2013, he currently writes for de Filmkrant among others. Read more of his work on his website

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