Streaming Spotlight - Sea stories

To celebrate World Oceans Day, we look at films that take to the water

by Amber Wilkinson

The Pearl Button
The Pearl Button Photo: Kino Lorber
It was World Oceans Day on Monday - a subject we previously highlighted a few years ago, with suggestions of documentaries to stream. Since then, the focus on our environment - and particularly plastic pollution - has grown and public awareness increased, not least thanks to Richard Attenborough and Blue Planet II. Given that the oceans provide the livelihoods for three billion people on the planet and absorb about 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide we produce, that's just as well. The UN this year called on world leaders to protect 30 per cent of our blue planet by 2030 (you can sign the petition here. We thought we'd take another dive into films which touch on ocean themes - both factual and fictional - for this week's Streaming Spotlight.

The Story Of Plastic, Sheffield Doc/Fest, £4.50

This comprehensive, but never preachy, documentary from Deia Schlosberg is available to stream over at Sheffield Doc/Fest, which is holding this year's edition online. The move of the festival into the virtual space makes it accessible for people up and down the country who may not ever have the chance to get to Sheffield in person - and its well worth taking a look at the whole catalogue. This film, which takes on the story of plastic from its birth in polluting factories through to its often watery grave as refuse in our oceans is a sobering account, which shows how the petrochemical companies have cleverly deflected our attention for years from the areas that really need it, such as massively increased production and use of the stuff. Watch the film on Doc/Fest's dedicated streaming channel here.

The Camino Voyage Cinema Paradiso

Jennie Kermode writes: Long before the building of roads, the fastest way to get around was by river or by sea, and the Celts, with their myriad isles, became experts at it. But what was their experience like? How fast could they realistically go? Dónal Ó Céilleachair's documentary follows two musicians, a writer, and artist and a stonemason who determined to find out by building themselves a traditional naomhóg and sailing it from Ireland to the shrine of the apostle St James in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in A Coruña, Spain - a traditional pilgrimage route. This is no mere pleasure trip. The rowing involved is hard and often (for them) tedious, which is why the music matters, to keep up morale; they have to face dangerous waters with a very real risk of drowning. Yet along the way, much like their ancestors, they make unexpected discoveries and meet strangers who, even when they can barely communicate, offer help and are excited by what they're doing. This is a film that plunges viewers into the past to reveal aspects of Irish people's relationship with the sea that have long since faded from memory.

The Pearl Button, Google Play, YouTube and other platforms, from £2.49

Patricio Guzmán's beguiling and beautifully shot documentary is a meditation on Chile's history and its connection to the water that flows from the toe to the tip of the country. He shows how Chile's five indigenous tribes often paddled for days around the country's archipelago before colonialism brought disease and genocide - as the tribe's descendants, of whom only about 20 survive, talk about their connection to the water. Guzmán also considers the watery grave met by many of those who "disappeared" at the hand of dictator Augustus Pinochet. He weaves these histories together with the tale of tribesman Jemmy Button, who was taken in exchange for the pearl button of the film's title, to be "civilised" by an English sea captain. Guzmán lets these different tributaries of thought run together until they form an ocean of humanistic reflection on his country's past.

Ponyo, Netflix

Jennie Kermode writes: When a five-year-old boy meets a beautiful princess, the stage is set for a heartwarming pre-school romance, except that this is a Studio Ghibli film and the princess in question is a fish. Not that this matters to the boy, who is enchanted by her regardless - but she really wants to become human. The magic she uses to achieve this distorts the balance of nature and, by causing the Moon to move ever closer to the Earth, puts everyone in peril. Yes, it's a silly plot, but the characters are adorable and their quest to restore balance provides a great starting point for explaining environmental issues to young children. Whilst adults may feel as if the message is being hammered into their skulls with a sledgehammer, the film really hits the spot with its target audience, and even people who find it difficult to engage with will be beguiled by its beautiful animation. A top-notch English voice cast makes for a much better than usual dub.

Fire At Sea, Google Play, Amazon and other platforms, from £2.49

One of the chief reasons you'll see the oceans in documentaries in recent years is because of the refugee crisis, as many flee war or forced displacement in a bid to find sanctuary in Europe. Crossing the Med or Aegean is a dangerous prospect but given the alternatives, many see it as the only option. There have been several excellent documentaries about the subject - and if you get a chance to see Sharon Walia's The Movement or Markus Imhoof's [film]Eldorado[/film[, they are also worth your time. But Gianfranco Rosi's moving Oscar-nominated documentary is the place to start. It shows snapshots of life on Lampedusa, the tiny island midway between Italy and Libya that many migrants aim for, alongside footage of some of those trying to make the dangerous crossing. The devil is in the details of Rosi's compassionate documentary, that slowly brings the horror of the situation home.

Styx, Amazon YouTube and other platforms, from £2.49

Wolfgang Fischer takes the sea-crossing refugee crisis in the fictional realm in this gripping film that largely takes place on the open ocean. Paramedic Rike (Susanne Wolff) plans to sail her boat alone from Gibraltar to the Ascension Islands but when she spots a stricken vessel that's overloaded with people she finds herself in a moral dilemma.  The action, which features a strong and physically demanding performance from Wolff  is never less than gripping but Fischer isn't just interested in serving up a few thrills - he also skewers our indifference.

The Islands And The Whales, Amazon, £2.49

Mike Day's absorbing documentary was shot over four years on the Faroe Islands - an archipelago of 18 isles that lies within the Arctic Circle. The islanders have traditionally relied on hunting and fishing for their livelihoods, but like many communities who depend on the sea, this has become increasingly under environmental threat in recent years. Among the traditions is whale hunting but, through the documentary, we'll learn that this doesn't only present a threat to the animals but also to the islanders, who are suffering from a build-up of mercury in their bodies because of eating them. Day's film is a elegy to a fading way of life, asking questions with no easy answers and presenting them against haunting cinematography. Read our interview with Day here.

For our short film this week, we recommend you pop back over to Sheffield Doc/Fest and take a look at Gambian documentary Stolen Fish, which is streaming as part of its Into The World shorts package (£3 to see the lot). Gosia Juszczak's film considers the impact of the fishmeal industry - which ships animal feed to Europe and China - on the local fishing community. It touches not only on environmental issues but also shows how upsetting this fragile system fuels migration to Europe.

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