Rising from the Sea

Rising from the Sea

The feature documentary The Blinding Sea is a story about men and women, ships and the oceans.

Making the film forced me to push way beyond my limits, whether personal or professional, artistic or technical.

During the research phase, I validated some of my findings in lectures at the Sorbonne, the Scott Polar Research Institute and Clare College, Cambridge, as well as Ohio State University, and in sharing drafts of the film with Inuit both in Nunavut and in Montreal. Some of these encounters sent me back to the drawing board!

While shooting the film, I travelled in all weather on the three-masted bark Europa, on the research icebreaker Amundsen, many times by dog-team, on skis, on foot. I even tumbled into the frigid waters of the Northwest Passage one time, to get underwater footage of the wreck of Amundsen’s ship Maud, and another time into a bone-chilling Norwegian alpine lake, to save a Nikon camera and ultralight tripod blown into the water by a sudden gust of wind!

Water is the setting for much of this story.

This composite shows: (upper left) my feeling of disorientation on the three-masted bark Europa, crossing the Southern Ocean; (upper right) the view out my porthole, as the ship was hit by surging waves; (lower right) turquoise water spreading across the frozen Beaufort Sea as the research icebreaker Amundsen struggled to break free of the ice; and (lower right) waves rising above the main deck on the Europa, at twilight

The Blinding Sea could not have been made by an armchair traveller, comfortably seated in a library somewhere. I was holding video cameras, rather than pen and paper, so this cast me as an artist-historian, embarking on polar expeditions of my own. The oceans are in constant movement, which presents challenges for cinematography, because I was not always aware of the ship lurching through the waves, or salt spots getting splattered on the lens, or condensation, or frost inching across the camera casing. And then … there is the constant threat of disappearance and death in the extreme conditions of the polar regions.

In The Blinding Sea, I take pains to tell as complete a story as possible, which means taking the time to get to know the people appearing in the film. According to the 19th century German historian Leopold von Ranke’s celebrated maxim, the task of the historian is to show “wie es eigentlich gewesen ist” – to show “how it essentially was.” But this maxim poses a challenge. Our perceptions are grounded in our culture, the environment we are most familiar with, and our experience of the world. In making a film about the interactions between people of different cultures in what was, for me, a foreign environment, I had to respect the point of view of the Norwegians, southern Canadians, Inuit, Siberian Chukchi and British people I interviewed and represent in the film.

A composite showing (upper left) the wreck of Sir John Franklin’s HMS Erebus at the bottom of the Northwest Passage (drawn for me by Burak Beytur); (upper right) the burial of Émile Danco next to the Belgica on the ice-covered Bellingshausen Sea (drawn for me by Peter Butler); (lower left) the early Canadian icebreaking steam yacht Earl Grey of 1909, destined for service on the Gulf of St. Lawrence; (lower right) the Russian polar icebreaker Yermak of 1898

Part of my research involved getting acquainted with wooden and steel ship construction, and the many features and varieties of polar snow and ice, from frost flowers to pancake ice, bergy bits, floes, growlers, pinnacle and tabular icebergs, glaciers and ice caps.

A composite showing (upper left) the icebreaker Amundsen smashing through ice on the Beaufort Sea, forming hexagonal blocks; (upper right) the three-masted bark Europa with all sails set; (lower left) a scientist’s throw-in during a soccer game on the Northwest Passage; and (bottom right) a helicopter shot of the Amundsen in the ice-pack

In a recent blog, I quoted Michael Polanyi, to the effect that we can know more than we can tell. The process of making this film, including my learning process, is not that obvious for people watching The Blinding Sea, now that it is complete!

A composite showing (upper left) Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova, a Newfoundland whaler he acquired for his Antarctic expedition of 1910-1912; my daughter Iona’s rendering of Roald Amundsen’s fishing sloop Gjoa, shown here overwintering in Nunavut on Christmas Day, 1904; (lower left) the Fram, which Amundsen borrowed from Fridtjof Nansen for what turned out to be his Antarctic expedition of 1910-1912; and (lower right) Amundsen’s ship Maud, which crew-members are here cutting out of the ice-pack north of Siberia in 1919-1920. The amazing diversity of ship construction over the last 125 years shows that naval architects have sought different means of getting through sea ice, from the Earl Grey’s clipper bow to the raked-bow and shallow-draft Gjoa, and the rounded, half-an-egg construction of the Fram and the Maud to the tremendous power of the world’s first true polar icebreaker, the Yermak, which rode over, and then crushed the ice

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