A group of waitresses in starched white uniforms stand awkwardly in a row, fiddling with their hair and giggling nervously by the seaside promenade, unsure whether the camera is taking a photograph or film. This is one of many fragments of history which documentary director Penny Woolcock has put together in From the Sea to the Land Beyond (2012), a nostalgic and creative collage of Britain’s romance with the sea. Using archive footage of the British seaside from the last one hundred years, Woolcock has woven together a beautiful found footage film about Britain and her ever-changing geographical and political landscape.
The film is presented in collaboration with indie band British Sea Power, who provide a joyously soaring live score, combining songs from their back catalogue with new music written especially for the film. Occasionally, sound from the films on show bleed into the score – we hear foghorns, seagulls, a net being dragged on the beach. The archive footage is rich and varied, with an emphasis on the romantic and the ritualistic, on seaside games and fashions, and footage of industry, whether it be the gutting and tinning of sardines or heavy machinery. There are truly, memorably beautiful moments throughout From the Sea to the Land Beyond. We see a group of experimental female dancers move in formation along a pristine beach; we join two girls in 1950s fashions eat ice cream in a seaside cafe.
Footage is presented in a roughly chronological manner, with various images from the past or present interspersed in a moving and effective way, tying the film together and bringing it back cyclically. Two world wars glide past us in a crescendo of multi-instrumentals. Although Woolcock explored briefly the increased commercialisation of the seaside experience with footage (perhaps from the late 50s or 60s) of shopping baskets and various commodities, we otherwise see little to nothing of the modern seaside – of litter, pollution, and chain hotels. Woolcock wallows in a beautiful past, with only a brief glance at the now in the form of some miserable Brits moaning about the weather. However, she was honest about this in her introduction, commenting that the archives get worse with the introduction of video.
From the Sea to the Land Beyond puts its emphasis on the filmic experience rather than socio-political detail. It isn’t telling a story so much as creating a mood, and boy does it do that. This is more about being swept away by the romance, the beauty, and the every-changing tide of history. It’s very easy for people to assume that something beautiful has nothing to say, but Woolcock has selected the beautiful from the more contentious with little in the way of focused editing or cutting, leaving one with the feeling of seeing some perfect and enjoyable, but shallowly so. Her film is unapologetically enjoyable, and was the highlight of this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest.
Sophia Satchell Baeza