Two Years at Sea: An Interview with Mauro Herce


By Jay Kuehner

A post-industrial trance film set aboard a phantom-like freighter drifting toward shipwreck or oblivion, Dead Slow Ahead materializes its eponymous nautical telegraph into an abstract state of voluptuous inertia. The merchant ship Fair Lady is adrift in unspecified international waters, her crew diminished (if not devoured) by the machinery of the vessel as it heaves upon a vast open sea, with ports of call on a horizon that appears as if it were a post-apocalyptic landscape, however real, of late-capital commerce. A mostly Filipino crew navigates these relatively untroubled waters, while a similarly stilled camera inhabits the ship’s bowels and deck, accompanied by an incessant nautical din: the clang of cable, a radar’s beeping pulse, the hissing wind, and sheer mass bearing down.

Director Mauro Herce, principally known as a cinematographer (see also Ocaso [2010] and Arraianos [2012]), has sculpted an aesthetically aberrant documentary that, while grounded in the vicissitudes of uneasy labour, effectively partakes of science fiction. Herce renders the fathomable into something utterly strange, teasing an intrinsically outré quality from objects or scenarios that have become fixed by routine perception (with cinema being among such routines). Witness the film’s opening sequence, which establishes a sense of remedial disorientation: what appears to be an abstract, blank colour field is revealed to be a simple curtain, its folds unceremoniously parted as the captain enters, his presence registered with a measure of static objectivity that weighs him equally to his material surroundings. In Herce’s vision of the Fair Lady’s ecosystem, man and machine become almost unrecognizably enmeshed, and the bulk of Dead Slow Ahead is rather non-polemically invested in allowing the contours (or hard edges) of this entanglement to be seen. The shiphands’ labour is neither degrading nor dignified in this view, and it’s intentionally unclear if the ship belongs to these sailors, or if they are ultimately at its mercy.

To elaborate on this distinction of the familiar in relation to the strange: there’s nothing really “fathomable” about this colossal ship. But as a phenomenon of global trade, a signifier of industry, and an overloaded container for the mythology of movies—the Fair Lady occasions no mutiny, nor African Queen-like heroics—there’s something universally recognizable about it. Though as striae of the hull’s metal ribbing are reflected, shimmering, in water pooling unctuously within; or as the ship’s cavernous belly assumes the uncanny dynamic of a colourfully illuminated stage (resembling Potemkin as envisioned by the Stenberg brothers); or as the itinerantly human howls of karaoke are subsumed by the din of the ship’s motor, a sense of strangeness overcomes the film’s taxonomy of the ship. Such essence owes to Herce’s bold design of bending perception to reveal the otherworldly that often screens the real. The resultant warp achieved by Herce’s persistence of vision has a way of undermining his subjects’ positions in space, as well as the viewer’s underpinnings. Hence the associative invocation of science fiction, in spite of Dead Slow Ahead’s otherwise contrasting claims to realist representation. Not just another boat movie, Dead Slow Ahead approximates the forgotten spaces of an Allan Sekula polemic as if corrupted by a David Lynch fever dream.

While the ship is a foreign harbour unto itself, its otherworldly vista toward various shores is what begets the film’s more disturbing impressions. Refineries, rigs, parched landscapes, and vestiges of unseen civilization appear in hallucinatory halations along the ship’s horizontal line of travel: the furtive passage of commerce, and time, is protracted linearly. Contrast this with the expansive vistas from the ship’s bow as it ploughs, laden with containers, into ominous cloud banks suggestive of 17th-century Dutch seascape painting, a beautiful but bruised light to which Herce surrenders in a striking montage. The dehumanizing effect of the crew’s steadfast labour is treated unsensationally, impassively even, to maximize a materialist essence, though this does not by nature entail an absence of humanism from the film’s implicit anthropology. Herce refrains from close-ups of his subjects (not until the quarter-hour mark do we get a good look at a face), but the sense of detachment serves to reveal an intimacy in the details. The sailors may lead a spectral existence at sea, but their presence is intimated within the ship’s cool surfaces: their disembodied voices, gathered from phone calls to loved ones back home, become insinuated into the labyrinthine interior architecture. The camera drifts along a wall of faded portraits, the sailor’s gazes distilling the melancholy of solitude’s context. In one small but momentous gesture—that could well spare the film from grave abstraction, redeem the bleakness of the voyage, and evince ever so discreetly the manifest poise of civilization—Herce steadies his camera upon the incidental scene of the sailors’ unoccupied supper table, set fastidiously for what could be just another meal, but suggestive of the very first or last. The still life of plate, napkin, glass, and adjacent apple resting on checked tablecloth: it contains multitudes.

Scarcely narrative, compelled by mood, Dead Slow Ahead feels virtually inhabitable. The very fact of the ship’s propulsion evokes the dread of capitalism’s relentless course, of which any critique is mere water on the ship’s deck. There’s drama to the misfortune of a leaking keel that could potentially destroy the cargo, but both the crew and director take it in stride. This lack of exigency bespeaks an artistic strategy that goes beyond a consideration of the ship’s cultural and political effect. The expressive, transformative power of Herce’s camera as it navigates the ship itself yields an expansive repertoire of signification, but it is elementally the ship’s sheer scale that bears commensurately, and most revealingly, on that of the film’s design. The articulation of space becomes the ultimate subject of Dead Slow Ahead: an acute sense of displacement both physical and psychological is rendered palpable. Ironically, the prevailing abstraction becomes the film’s most generous point of entry, as it sets loose our attention from the immediate fate of the crew (who will promptly move on to other tasks) while hollowing out an alternately transfixing and disenchanted realm for us to ruminate on our own condition. At the very least, we might take some strange comfort in the less-than-metaphysical realization that, somewhere far out at sea, within the deepest reaches of a behemoth whose destination is unknown, an anonymous sailor is running laps around the engine room.

Cinema Scope: How on earth, or rather sea, did this film come about?

Mauro Herce: It’s hard to know where ideas come from, exactly, but the first and probably most primary reason is that I grew up in a city close to the sea, Barcelona, and I was always watching these ships waiting on the horizon. As a child, I wondered what life there was like. So strange, these ships, and to know nothing about that life! So in a way it’s about a dream from childhood. Later, I read a lot about ships, and learned that most of the world’s cargo is moved by marine transportation. I was shocked to realize that this was a reality, that it reflected not only a seafaring life but also our way of living, especially in the “first world.”

I was working as a cinematographer on a film in Chile about five years ago, and I was waiting for another shoot in Valparaiso that didn’t come to fruition because of production issues. So in the interim I started to meet longshoremen in the harbour, and I expressed to them my curiosity of life aboard the ships. They invited me to stay with them for a few days. The situation was problematic because of the economic crisis, so the ship was docked in the harbour for months. Because of this they were eager to participate in something; they were listless, with time on their hands, and they explained to me that their families knew so little about their life at sea. Of course, in that moment I would like to have begun filming, but I needed funds for production. Then, to spend months aboard the ship, I would need consent from their boss, and that wasn’t going to happen.

For artistic reasons, I was drawn to this film about life on a ship because, although its passengers travel the world, everyone essentially remains in the same place. As a filmmaker and cinematographer, I like to work in specific locales and remain there, understanding the culture and how it works, how people move in the space and how I feel in this place. This maritime environment is theoretically ideal for this, because it leaves me a lot of space for finding the film. I may have many ideas going into shooting, but I can do visceral research on location to make a more intimate film. I cannot know in advance exactly what and how I’m shooting, or what it’s about. I need to understand a certain plasticity to the location. The ship lends itself to a very cinematographic disposition—the fact that it has a fixed aspect, and yet is always moving. That, and the people that I am filming are “available” by the nature of the job.

It’s also about my life as a cinematographer. So much of my life is spent away from home, which requires a certain amount of sacrifice. It must be similar for these sailors—they must commit to this lifestyle and hope they can adapt. So, maybe, if I live this journey with them, I may learn something about myself.

Scope: When you were thinking about this film that had been gestating since childhood, and was evolving as you worked on films internationally, were you “seeing” the film as a cinematographer or as a director, more in terms of narrative content? Both?

Herce: I had to write many treatments for the sake of financing, and I was thinking in terms of a fiction film at one point, with actors, particularly because sailors are too busy to be filmed or may be indifferent to my ideas. Perhaps they were characters? But I had my fears. I continued with the script because producers always want films with very clear subjects, in a particular way. I prefer to make a kind of cinema of regard. How you look at reality, how you want to show it, with a kind of distance, a singular point of view. This interests me more than a subject. I thought: I’m going to play the game, write a story. But I didn’t know how I’d feel once inside, on a ship. I was confident that if I trusted the experience—I trust in reality, because that is how I shoot as a cinematographer—that things would start to happen out of this confrontation, between my intuition and the reality before me. It’s important to me to always be surprised. Each day when shooting I create an agenda, but inevitably by midday I’ve changed direction. Because often what I’ve written or thought becomes superficial or common, because I’m manipulating reality to conform to my preconceived notions, before getting to know the space. It’s a poor cinema that distorts reality, of knowing what to say before knowing the space. For me it’s important to be transformed by the process. I want to learn something about the world I’m shooting. It’s more than just work: it’s a necessity, an obsession. I’ve got to be touched by what I’m shooting. I can be moved to tears by what I’m shooting because I’m seeing something anew, with more lucidity.

Scope: Film as an act of discovery.

Herce: In the shooting and in the editing. I recorded almost 200 hours of footage in two and a half months, often working through the day, sleeping, then waking with the images. It became a variation on performance, of putting myself in this space, making myself available. I may have not known clearly what I wanted to do, but I knew what I wanted to avoid: the anecdotal, and references to cinema that I’ve seen. Wait for the unexpected, then follow this path. Only then can you be moved.

Scope: This is close to a kind of philosophy of shooting. But more pragmatically, where did you find the Fair Lady and its Filipino crew?

Herce: It took two years to find this ship. I tried captains, owners, and the companies who transport the goods. It was an exhausting process. One I found required payment as a passenger, but I didn’t want to enter into this agreement because I wanted to be able to roam freely, and I didn’t want to complicate relations with the crew. I didn’t want to be a tourist; I wanted to be one of them. At least close to them. I wanted to be the lowest rank, like the crew who worked with the wheat.

Scope: You became embedded with the crew? Were you accepted, or did you remain outside?

Herce: It took a bit of time, more than usual on shoots I’ve done. Typically I bring a cooperative spirit, and give people a reason to participate. You need an atmosphere of levity sometimes. I need them to want to be there; if I feel there is any violation, or too much distance, I lose the desire to continue. I need to do this with people. On this film it was more complicated, perhaps because they were Filipino and the ship’s owner was Greek. If I’m culturally closer to the Greek, then there is suspicion that I’m working for the boss! There was a wall of men at first, not so welcoming. After a few weeks the relations became more personal, and we drank together, but still I feared for the film because of the possibility of being unwelcome on a ship I was about to spend months on. Then the captain started pushing them to participate, but I insisted it be more consensual.

Scope: The film is divided, in a way, between time spent in the ship, and then on deck, from where we see the passing land and seascape. Was this a deliberate strategy?

Herce: The structure that now seems consolidated is something we found in editing. There must have been 40, 50 versions of the film, each one distinct. For example, upon entering the ship, I found an environment completely different from that in Chile. This crew was very busy. They were much less available. I had to adapt to them, not them to me. It leant itself to an observational approach, but I didn’t want to make a film in this manner. The results were not inspiring, even though we tried to shape this material in editing, juxtaposing the observational with more “contemplative” footage of nature, without people, of the ports and the mechanization. I also conducted interviews that were quite conventional, and we tried working with various combinations of footage, but the real film that was taking shape and which we had a good intuition for was something more abstract, impressionistic—science fiction even. It was a desire from the beginning, but we weren’t sure, so we had to subtract, and push for less definition. It took a lot of time: we edited for a year.

In harbours, I was completely hypnotized by the machinery. I fell into a trance. Cranes, the metal and movement, and the sounds they emit. I was impressed, but I also found it awful, this efficiency. I tried to capture the mechanics as best as possible, but also the darkness, at night. There was a plasticity to the environment. And in editing we began to combine this with more footage of nature—the landscape, the sea—and our intuition began to find expression. There was a heightened contrast of light and colours, and the vacant landscapes were a consequence of how industry evacuates culture. The film became more associative, as we followed our intuition after finding a particular etincelle, a spark. Once we felt this, we began to push the impressionistic aspects further.

Scope: Was the ship alien to you when you boarded? Was this sense of science fiction intrinsic?

Herce: Prior to shooting, I spent time in the port of Barcelona, photographing the cranes, the machinery, and I was thinking of how to frame this. I speculated that if a hundred years prior a human were to see this, it would appear as science fiction. We thought about how the future was depicted in fiction films—the anticipation of strangeness—but here, the future was now. The strange future we see in fiction is happening today. We have the impression that this is normal. But the ships are rusting, so the emblems of this surreal future are problematic in our time. We wanted to document this mix, to present this paradox of something that looks like it’s from the future but at the same time is already part of the past. Something new and obsolete at the same time.

On the ship, the sailors have a DVD room, and together we watched a lot of science-fiction movies, some very bad. But I was enlightened by how these worlds seemed so similar: satellite phones, voices on intercoms giving orders, warnings of danger zones, and so forth. Sometimes we hear the recorded broadcast of a woman’s voice, which is very strange in this order of men. And then the ports and landscapes appear as if on another planet. This impression of science fiction was not too far from the reality, and this impression grew over time, so in editing we went further with it: playing with the sound, prioritizing images, and alternating certain ambient qualities.

Scope: There’s something causal in the absurdity of the science fiction, which is that what we see as foreign is in fact a direct consequence of consumptive cultures, the rapaciousness of commerce. The wheat is abstract on the ship, but it’s real once it’s processed and we’re consuming it. The film does not present an economic critique, but it’s implied in the very nature of the ship’s passage.

Herce: The sci-fi element was a means of talking about very real things. There’s something about genre that allows us to maintain a distance, to assume that what is strange is in fact not real, not happening. What is concrete seems too crazy to fathom—as if in a genre—so we dismiss it. The way we are living is not normal at all, but the film is not exclusively about the idea that capitalism is incessant or overdetermined. Humans cannot exempt themselves from capitalism; it’s their creation. There’s something in the nature of man…for me it’s about the deep loneliness of man, in the reach for meaning, the quest for well-being, safety, and doing better in life. It is for these things that we invented machines, and capitalism is a consequence of our movement, our thinking. To live is terrifying, and we are always trying to do better, but the more we do, the more I have the impression that we are far from wellness. Is it good or bad? I don’t want morality like this in cinema. These times are crazy, but we do as we can.

Scope: The ship can’t stop; “It keeps going and going,” says one sailor. There’s something dehumanizing about the kind of work the sailors are subject to, being cogs in the machine. But on the contrary, there’s something deeply warm in the portrayal of the sailors, even if in absentia. Their songs are drowned out by the ship’s industrial noise, but the silencing of their voices registers as a kind of cry.

Herce: The film is not experimental as in an exercise in forms. There is a lot of anguish in the film. We can feel the density of the atmosphere. The film’s aesthetics are in the service of a deeply human element. We intentionally withheld from showing too much about them, because we wanted to gradually travel from the machine to the man. The machine conducts the man—he is a part of it, lacking identity. If he’s a shadow, it’s because we know nothing of his life, out at sea. But gradually we see more of him, of them: we hear their voices, see their bodies, and witness their gestures. Not just physical gestures, but gestures of love.

Scope: This makes me think of that incredible shot of the table, set for a meal. It seems to tell the whole story, in a way. And the care with which they’ve placed the settings extends to the care you take in shooting it.

Herce: The precise fold and placement of the napkin. The apple. It’s a manifestation of love. Here we are in such a strange place, and then this. Yes, they eat. The shot is meaningful for what comes before it. You can begin to understand the structure of the film this way. The emotional transmission is very subtle.

Scope: There’s a heart beating in the machine after all…The spectral quality of the portraits on the wall: it’s like they’re ghosts. The ship is haunted with melancholy. All this navigational equipment, but you can’t locate the precise emotional coordinates of this crew. We catch only the glint in their eyes.

Herce: This spectral quality is something you feel, but at the same time it’s not just the sailors, it’s me, us. “Humanity” is a big word, but we can universalize this sensation of their endeavour. It’s problematic to psychologize them. Without being too allegorical, there is a sense of these men bearing a collective peché of the world. There is something sacrificial about their work. These men are condemned to a certain life of repetition, Sisyphean ghosts travelling around the world.

We use their voices, taken from phone calls to their families, towards the end. I began to internalize these voices because of my proximity on the ship; I carried them around in my head. I too was often phoning home, and I was homesick on the boat, so I began to imagine these conversations from a sympathetic perspective. The voices resonate within the space, like the slow pan across the machinery. The space is codified with signs, so we gathered these signs, and then rearranged them to give sense by creating a relational design.

Scope: The film is more sculptural, an object to which we are relating corporeally, temporally. We pass through it, and negotiate it. The scale of the ship determines the shape of the film, and this dialogue for me articulates something about the nature of transience, and of something eternal. The ship becomes a stage to fret upon…

Herce: It’s hard to fathom just how big these ships are, as there’s no easy thing to compare them with. When the wheat was being loaded, truck upon truck arrived in a constant procession to fill just one hull. How can I convey this impression to the spectator? There is the context of the sea, but how to give an impression of something so vast? How do you shoot it? Our only point of measure was the figure of the human, because that we can comprehend. The question is how do I give expression to this space, how do I progress from one form to the other, and construct a bit of mystery, so that you are in suspension, almost hypnotized. For this you can’t have shots that are too descriptive.

The film is about progressing within this scale. Nature is so encompassing; the sea especially is frighteningly vast. Humans do what they can to make sense of it, to shape it for a better life. It was important to build dialogues between these elements, to construct magnitudes. To show the immensity of interior and exterior experience. This is not an easy task for the camera.

Scope: There’s a disorientation of perception, negotiating what seems immense and what seems diminutive, what is grand and what is banal. Should our eye be looking near or far? The opening scene sets this tone rather effectively.

Herce: There is of course a painterly aspect to the film—I used to paint—and a musical element, the compositional treatment of found sound, a symphony of the ship. But back to what you said about sculpture, I think this is overlooked. There is often an articulation of space that emerges from a sequence composed of just three or four extended shots. The sequence constitutes an engagement, a solicitation of the moment. Not of the subject, but of the viewer inhabiting this space.

I push the shot toward an act of discovery. I shoot and keep shooting until something begins to happen. I try to empty myself of prejudice, of references, and to simply flow with the spaces. What happens in my very movement is real, what is there is unique. In Arraianos, I was allowed to go with the camera, uninhibited by thoughts of what to shoot, and be surprised by what was happening in front of me. I want to recover this impression of seeing something for the first time: a certain purity to the act of seeing. Cinema like this is playful. We can’t be entirely innocent, but if you approach something from the state of exhausting yourself, emptied out, then things begin to reveal themselves. It’s like a trance. You can be accompanied—invoked—by the image.

Scope: And also with the sonic environment?

Herce: Most of the sound is sourced from the ship itself, but clearly there is no direct correspondence with the images. We employed sound for its plasticity, as an elaboration of the ship’s atmosphere. We wanted to avoid a film score, but there are moments of processed sound, in particular the karaoke scene, or the mantra-like sound of wheat being dumped into the sea. With sound we wanted to create a sense of being sealed in, of the cold hermeticism of the ship.

Scope: The accident aboard the ship is treated so calmly that it feels as if it could be staged. Was it a narrative conceit?

Herce: The potential disaster we see isn’t about the ship sinking, it’s about the wheat getting wet and, having arrived at its destination, being refused by the client. So what do you do with all this spoiled grain? For a month, with buckets and ropes, the sailors moved the wheat to the deck, and discarded it at sea: it’s forbidden to toss overboard near the coast. They began exhuming the wheat on Christmas Day, and they worked, by hand, 17 hours a day. Everyone was exhausted for the Christmas dinner that the cook prepared; it was quiet and sad. But in terms of what’s happening in the film, we deliberately abstracted the details and consequences of the accident; the spectator is lost, because there’s no way to understand just how much wheat there is. The crew is condemned to their Sisyphean task, without end.

Scope: The film concludes not on the image of man, but of machine.

Herce: All the work of the humans and the machines is concentrated on this turbine. When we see it at the film’s beginning for the first time, it is just a machine, but by the end it is charged with a symbolic sense, the rotation signifying the movements of something as small as an organ or as big as the cosmos, the cyclical nature of time, the propulsion of the mind, or whatever you want to project on to it. The signs in the film can constitute a loose path, its stones placed not so close together so that the spectator can stray—with their own imagination, experience, and emotion—toward what is meaningful.