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BFI London Film Festival: The Sea Ahead and The Neutral Ground

This article is part of a series covering the releases at the 2021 BFI London Film Festival; previous entries in the series are available on the site.

The Sea Ahead

Jana (Manal Issa) dances with her boyfriend in The Sea Ahead
The Sea Ahead (dir. Ely Dagher, 2021)

I won’t keep you in suspense, this film was just boring. That’s a word I’ve learned not to use as a critic, but why spend eight-hundred words groping for synonyms when you could just be frank? After his short film, the Palme d’Or winner Waves ’98, director Ely Dagher returns with his feature film debut The Sea Ahead. Manal Issa, who we met earlier this festival via her performance in the far better Memory Box, stars here as Jana, a young woman mysteriously returned to Beirut from her Parisian college, arriving from the arrivals terminal like Paris, Texas‘s Travis emerging from the desert. Her parents are privately curious about what’s going on with her, but are glad she’s home and don’t press her for an explanation. Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend wants to pick up where they left off. She might do as well, but something’s still off. Her parents probe her and she responds with anger.

Like in Paris, Texas, there’s a mystery, not about why she left, but why she came back, but before you get too excited, we never find out what it was. So, there was nothing: she had an attack of depression and came home, right? Surely there’s more to it than that? The film offers some suggestions about what’s going through her head. Time and time again she tries to get into the swing of her old life, but every time she forgets herself, the cloud descends once more. She just can’t be happy. The titular sea? Depression, rising sea-levels, climate crisis, impending war, take your pick. The films apocalyptic imagery, which arrives too late in the game to salvage audience interest, seems to suggest environmental anxiety and hopelessness. That’s my most generous interpretation of her malaise; that’s what a dialogue between me and this film generates, it’s about climate change and her despondency.

Now, my God, did that take a long time to get across. I’ll admit, call it unprofessionalism, but there were a couple of movies this festival I didn’t finish, I won’t name them as it would be unfair to review them in any form without seeing them, but when you’ve got five or sometimes six films a day to watch, you’ve not really got time to hang around waiting for a snoozer to get interesting. However, of all the films I did finish this festival, this was the dullest. Maybe it was one slow burner after another  finally catching up with me, but this two-hour-long movie felt like six. I invite every single person who complained about No Time to Die feeling too long to give this movie a try and get some perspective on what tedium really is.

The film spends an inordinately long time building up the most transitory moments that don’t feel like they have any real relevance to the themes the film is exploring. It just doesn’t maintain any kind of thematic or narrative focus, and these extraneous scenes aren’t interesting in themselves. It takes the longest way round possible to convey the simplest ideas. There’s no sense of journey, motive or impetus, and as a character study, it fails because we don’t know this character, it’s all supposition. It expects to keep your interest with just crumbs and the most mundane scenes in between.

There’s a three minute long, totally dialogue-free scene where she and her boyfriend dance drunkenly. She dances happily, the fog descends, it passes and she starts dancing again and that takes three minutes. That scene is the movie in miniature and contains about as much context or understanding of her malaise as we ever get. There’s a minute-long sequence of her making coffee; this film has no business being two hours long! Every even-vaguely interesting idea or scene could have been reduced down to less than half that time. I was desperate to find some meaning in all this but was rewarded not at all. It felt like The Sea Ahead was fighting me all the way.

I swear I gave this film a fair shot. In the first five minutes, I was mentally comparing it to Paris, Texas! The knives weren’t out. I was ready to like it; I understood it; I just wasn’t moved by it. It was intellectually deadening. The film’s apocalyptic imagery, though the most interesting part, never develops into anything or pays off, even as an effective piece of symbolism, not even in the film’s comically anti-climactic ending, which includes the most unconvincing bludgeoning scene since Repulsion. It’s always disappointing to realise that the reason you don’t like a film isn’t because its offensive or asinine or annoying, but simply because it’s the unimaginative, self indulgent reflections of an immature filmmaker unable to string together a captivating thought. If Ely Dagher makes a compelling film in the future, we won’t be looking back at The Sea Ahead and saying “the signs were always there”.

The Neutral Ground

CJ Hunt faces the monument to Confederate G.P. Beauregard
The Neutral Ground (CJ Hunt, 2021)

If you’re unlucky enough to have had access to social or mass media in the last five years, then you’ve seen the debates about what to do with public icons celebrating figures of colonialism and confederacy, now that many of us are willing to confront and oppose what those icons represent. The city of New Orleans became the centre of this debate in 2015 when a public hearing resulted in a resolution to remove four of its statues commemorating leaders of the confederacy that were erected post-reconstruction and Jim Crow: Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, G.P. Beauregard and The White League. Despite the majority support in favour of the move, niche support groups like the Monumental Task Force began to try and block it.

Immediately upon hearing of the decision, stand-up comedian and documentarian C.J. Hunt took an interest in the case and began to follow it with a view to making a documentary. What he didn’t know at the time was that it would be this documentary, as the intensity of the debate slowly began to escalate over the years that followed.

Despite the film’s satirical tone, it is surprisingly considerate and even-handed, living up to its title as much as is reasonable, with interviews with figures representative of the Louisiana Sons of Confederate Veterans initially seeming receptive and constructive, putting forward a surprisingly compelling case for memorialising the southern dead. As Hunt observes, “how else would you memorialise that many missing soldiers?” Seeking out common ground, he goes, Louis Theroux-like, to a civil war re-enactment, in the hope of a sincere exchange of perspectives. However, the debate is immediately shut down, and not by Hunt, when the issue of slavery arises.

Unable to rationalise their grief in the context of their soldiers having died on the hill of “keep slavery”, a new narrative was created, the ‘lost cause’ myth. How do you grieve for people who died defending the indefensible? Historical revisionism began to take hold, and Hunt’s documentary works to shatter the myths and misconceptions about the Confederacy that still hold a shocking degree of weight among many southern whites. These monuments weren’t built as memorials to dead soldiers, they were built as a response from the white establishment to civil rights movements, recasting the confederates as men who died fighting to maintain southern sovereignty and not the institution of slavery.

Gradually, the film’s light and satirical tone begins to fall away as it becomes increasingly apparent that in his capacity as lay preacher for historical awareness, Hunt is fighting a lost cause of his own, with his new friends rejecting all but the most comforting myths. Eventually, the film takes the course history did as the debate turns violent and comedian Hunt confesses he has begun to feel hopelessly outclassed by all the hate. Closet supremacists can be satirised and reasoned with; the Klan can’t be. The presence or absence of monuments to one thing or another can feel like a trivial issue, but the conversation means more than the monuments themselves. What does it say about American society that people will kill to keep the monuments up?

The Neutral Ground is an informative, incisively satirical, cunningly edited and often unsettling portrait of the legacy of slavery in the South and the need for education to dig up the history the lost cause myth buried, being itself a fine example of just such historical revisionism, allowing black Americans to tell their own stories and commemorate their own past their own way. History is a science and when it discovers a more accurate truth, it must change. We may feel like a comforting lie has its advantages, but allowing misinformation to fester unchallenged only leads to outpourings of hatred when people who’ve built their identities on that lie have their ignorance challenged.

Written by Hal Kitchen

Primarily a reviewer of music and films, Hal Kitchen studied at the University of Kent where they graduated with distinction in both Liberal Arts BA and Film MA, specializing in film, gender theory and cultural studies. Whilst at Kent they were the Film & TV sub-editor and later Culture Editor of the campus newspaper InQuire and began a public blog on their Letterboxd account.
Hal joined 25YearsLaterSite as a volunteer writer in May 2020 and resumed their current role of assistant film editor in November 2020.

2 Comments

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  1. Hey Hal, i’m very confused because i usually like what you write but i am very offended by this. I grew in Lebanon and caught the film at Bfi last week. I, and many in the room with me were sobbing from how much this film was poignant and powerful. how much it circumvents stupid narratives and stories from the Arab world and doesn’t fall in the stereotypes but instead offered us a powerful experience of loss of self of identity or perspective. Anyway, i get that it’s not for everyone and clearly you’re not sensitive to this cinema and lack a certain empathy. but still i’m surprised at the level you stooped to.

    • Hi Nina, I know it’s upsetting to read harsh criticism of a film that resonated with you emotionally. I knew this review would likely garner this kind of response, but I couldn’t be anything but honest about my experience with the film. My negative emotional reaction does not in any way invalidate your positive one, nor vice versa. I’m very pleased to know you’ve enjoyed my writing in the past and hopefully you’ll continue reading it as the overwhelming majority of my writing is more positive in tone that I was able to be here.
      However, you say that this piece offended you and I am always conscious of not crossing any kind of line with my writing – although as I say in the opening, I did break one of my unwritten rules by using a word as reductive as “boring”. If any part of my article felt amoral or prejudicial, please specify which parts. If I feel there’s merit in your claim then I’ll remove that part immediately as I’m sure it would be down to a mis-wording on my part if any actual offense was caused.

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