Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"A haunting film full of beautiful melodies."

The first and simplest form of communication is imitation. Long centuries ago, the people of Scotland’s highlands and islands learned to imitate the calls of seals in order to draw them to the shore. Over time, those sounds evolved into songs. In this evocative short film, Finnish artist Hanna Tuulikki explores the idea that these songs once had a place in mourning rituals, with the seals themselves perhaps perceived as embodying the souls of community members lost at sea.

It’s a deeply personal film, created at time when many people were struggling with bereavement due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and screened as part of the 2022 Folk Film Gathering in Edinburgh. Shot at the mouth at the Ythan river in rural Aberdeenshire, it sees the artist herself, dressed in dark clothing and carrying a piece of cloth patterned like a sealskin, stand amongst the tall grass and serenade the common and grey seals who are relaxing on a beach at the other side of the water. Some enter the slow-flowing brine, idly looking ar5ound for food. Others swim closer, intrigued by the song.

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In the old stories, selkies, who appear like seals, can transform into something like humans on land by taking off their skins. If such a skin is stolen, its owner becomes trapped in that form – a key element in many a tragic romance, which adds something to the theme of loss and the impossibility of reunion which is explored here, in a place as liminal as the boundary between life and death. In the film’s second half, Tuulikki clothes herself in the sealskin-patterned cloth to perform a dance of sorts, imitating the seals’ posture, again making some of them curious. There is an implication that she has been transformed by the water, and a reminder that, in many ways, seals and humans are not that different, easily coming to resemble one another.

A haunting film full of beautiful melodies, Seals’kin serves as a reminder that folklore need not be relegated to the past and that it can serve a vital purpose in the present when other tools fail us. it’s a slow paced tale, in keeping with the traditions of the north, but Tuulikki successfully finds a point of balance. It doesn’t drag but instead acquires a hypnotic quality, a stillness around which an ocean of grief might swirl yet do no harm.

Reviewed on: 25 Jun 2022
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A woman in mourning communicates with seals.

Director: Hanna Tuulikki

Writer: Hanna Tuulikki

Starring: Hanna Tuulikki

Year: 2022

Runtime: 19 minutes


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The Fisherman’s Daughter