A large network of volunteers across Europe works day and night to save marine animals from life-threatening storms or contaminants. The threats are constantly increasing as we continue to damage fragile marine ecosystems, climate change drives storms and sea levels rise.
This is the emergency scenario that Robin Petré’s debut documentary addresses From the wild sea, filmed during the coronavirus pandemic in the Netherlands and the British Isles and premiered in the Generation section of this year’s online Berlinale film festival.
The Danish filmmaker enlarges the complex relationship between man and nature and takes the viewer on a fascinating, disturbing journey. The film begins with a static shot of a cage seal that volunteers are about to release. It was transported from a rescue center where seals are picked when they are poisoned or damaged by oil or other industrial wastes in the ocean – or when they hit rocks that dodge storms.
It’s a powerful image that hints at the film’s central themes: what it means to be powerless in the face of human activity and the true role of rescue and rehabilitation efforts in helping endangered animals.
The film follows two members of the volunteer network. The first is Dan Jarvis, British Divers Marine Life Rescue’s Welfare Development and Assistance Officer, and someone who has dedicated his existence to the conservation of marine mammals. He is always on call and ready to rush to the next rescue.
One anecdote he shares is particularly shocking. In 2007, a hooded seal was found in Morocco, far from its normal territory in the Arctic Circle. It was rescued and sent to Portugal to begin rehabilitation and then handed over to the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in the UK for release back into the wild (with a satellite tag) around the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland become.
The wrong course
The seal followed the continental shelf to the south, thus reaching the north coast of Spain – and had to be rescued again. It does this because of the perverse effects of climate change: animals are disoriented and headed in the wrong direction looking for food and / or more suitable temperatures.
The second volunteer is veterinarian James Barnett, who is conducting an inventory of the industrial impact on marine life through years of post mortem exams. We see him give up his role as a lawyer / activist and watch him dissect organs and other body parts, fueled by real scientific curiosity.
The camera is static throughout the film and often shows the animals from above. This point of view makes her sense of fear and distress evident on the screen. One of the most striking scenes filmed this way shows a growling seal visited by young vets trying to inspect its jaws after it was injured while trying to escape a storm. While they are obviously doing their best to help, viewers feel troubled and realize that there shouldn’t be a seal here.
The lack of a score – with the exception of the final credits – amplifies the rich sensory experience, where the sounds of wind, ocean waves, birds, and marine fauna blend beautifully with the melancholy, gloomy atmosphere created by the unfolding story. And there are some touching moments. In one case, the volunteers are dwarfed by a battered 19-meter-long fin whale that is now stranded on the beach – again a victim of trying to escape a storm. It was already uncomfortable, now it is dying. No matter how much larger the creature is than we are, we still give little consideration to it.
Commendably, Petré’s film avoids any rhetorical traps and lacks voice-over comments. It only challenges pictures of the animals affected by the effects of climate change or being harmed by marine pollution and the stories of the volunteers to work for the welfare. From the wild sea ends with a hopeful note that highlights the importance of animal freedom through a simple but effective ending image, showing one of the cages we see in the opening shot being opened, followed by a static shot of a flock of pigeons flying in a cloudy sky . This is accompanied by Stupid animal stupid, an ironically named song sung by Ishmael Colombani, a member of the world music band Sages Comme Des Sauvages.