Slow Cinema Meets a Slow Boat in Immersive Documentary ‘Dead Slow Ahead’

In Movies & TV by Lee Gardnerleave a COMMENT

Things you will see when you watch Dead Slow Ahead: an ocean squall athwart a ship’s bow under a bruised-black sky. The abstract dance of loaders and cranes dumping untold tons of coal into a cargo hold, their shining lights and ponderous movements giving them the feel of robots bent on some arcane task. Crewmen emptying a gaping hold full of wheat, one bucket, one shovel at a time. The same crewmen drinking and singing karaoke in a dark cabin while one of their number wiggles a flashlight back and forth in a feeble approximation of nightclub festivity. An anonymous dusty shore, washed out by a hazy light, sliding slowly past. The ever-spinning prop shaft, deep in the ship’s dark guts, lit up in red like the infernal spindle of the world.

The list of things you will not see, or hear, includes characters, plot, voice-over or title cards, much dialogue, or a traditional narrative. Filmmaker Marco Herce joined the crew of the bulk freighter Fair Lady for some of their travels, recorded what he experienced, and assembled the sights and sounds into a feature-length cinematic tone poem that is unlike most anything else you’ll see onscreen this year.

Which is not to say it’s unlike any film you may have seen recently. Dead Slow Ahead’s obvious antecedent is Leviathan, the breakout 2012 experimental doc about life aboard a North Atlantic fishing vessel, along with other projects that have likewise come out of Harvard University’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (Sweetgrass, Manakamana, The Iron Ministry). These are all observational documentaries in the strictest sense, cinematic immersion in their time and setting devoid of blatant agenda or framing. Dead Slow isn’t as abstract or borderline hallucinatory as Leviathan, but it shares a similarly bleak atmosphere and a subtle focus on the brutal rigors of oceangoing labor. (The title also serves as a warning about the pace.)

Herce finds beauty throughout the Fair Lady, from its dank bowels to the sculptural ribs of its holds to the mid-ocean vistas of its pitching decks. But his camera eventually finds its way to the voyages of its largely Filipino crew. At one point, a jumpsuit-clad hand turns a wheel that activates another wheel just a few feet away, an enormous pulley spinning so furiously that it could easily rip the man to pieces. When the ship springs a leak and fouls a cargo of grain, the crew winds up emptying the dregs of it by hand—in some shots, they’re antlike figures on the face of a Sisyphean task. Off-shift, they eat in a dingy mess and drink and sing in bare-bones revelry. As the film winds down, Herce listens in as they call home, telling their wives they love them, asking after their kids, and, in one case, discussing maybe missing the birth of a new child while still out to sea.

Dead Slow Ahead takes advantage of a cacophony of shipboard sounds, many of which, stripped of their source, sometimes come off like the latest release from some esoteric drone project. But in one case, Herce shows footage of a crew member giving his all into a karaoke mic while the soundtrack carries not his singing, but a grim collage of industrial screeches. It’s the most obvious spot where the director seems to editorialize through his choices, but not the only one.

The Fair Lady’s crew members seem glum and taciturn, but then Herce never asks them a question on camera or catches conversations among them that aren’t about the immediate work at hand. The brooding skies the camera captures are gorgeous, but one wonders if the dramatic clouds kept blue skies and sunbeams at bay the entire voyage, which is how it appears. The phone calls the director records may capture the men’s distance from loved ones, but none of them sound particularly distraught about it. While Dead Slow Ahead has no stated agenda, it nonetheless manages to feel a little pedantic about the nature of this work in a way that the more immersive Leviathan never did.

That said, Dead Slow Ahead offers an often stunning glimpse into a floating world that few of us will ever see.

The Public Cinema screens Dead Slow Ahead at Pilot Light on Tuesday, Oct. 4, at 7:30 p.m. Admission is free. 


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