Portrait

Talking about wildlife documentaries and oceans with filmmaker Karina Holden.

By Jessica Zhan Mei Yu.

‘Blue’ director Karina Holden

Karina Holden and I are sitting in a South Yarra cafe with dark furniture and low lighting. Karina is a woman with a marine face: wide-set eyes, sun-ripened pink skin, the kind of briny blonde hair you don’t often see in Melbourne. She wears a blue linen shirt dress. Her eyes and direct address speak of sharpness and practicality. The first thing Karina does is give me a promotional postcard for her new film, Blue, a piece of black card with words forming the shape of a fish. It occurs to me that activist art-making must, at times, depend upon this, the ability to thrust a piece of card into the hand of a person you have just met.

I begin by telling Karina I have just been swimming and love the feeling of being in water. That morning, the sun spangled the water in the pool with tie-dyed swirls of blue. I was amorphous and alone, my body taking on the properties of the water to inhabit it for a moment. I ask about her own identification as someone at home in the ocean and she indulges me: “I grew up on the northern beaches of Sydney, so I was around them right from a very young age. It was that thing of learning to walk on sand in the beach.”

She goes on to tell me about how she filled childhood’s liminal space between school’s out and dinnertime by “jumping in the sea every day”. Her family had a little dinghy, which they’d use to explore, a vessel bent towards the sea’s attractive mystery. “The further out you went the darker it got … untethering from land … the boat you went on would set you free.”

Karina explains that her formative encounters with the sea made persisting ideas of the struggle between man and nature appear unusual to her. “I’d always seen it as Man and Nature … But if you’re making wildlife film – for the American market, particularly – it’s Man versus Nature. How do I escape? I need to get to a safe space. There was always this sense of combat … The impetus to see nature as something you separate yourself [from] is very unusual. We are animals. We are part of natural systems. Nature is not a hobby or a pastime, it’s who we are.”

We go on to discuss Blue. Rather than engaging with old mythemes of Ocean as Edenic sea garden or Ocean as site of fear, Karina says she decided to present the contemporary natural world as both beautiful and declining: “In the last decade [of] wildlife filmmaking, the model is to present an Eden and a frolicking population of animals who we enjoy and we are amazed with nature and tooth and claw and savagery. But the savagery of population in decline and habitats being destroyed has been left to the realm of news and current affairs. I didn’t think they needed to be mutually exclusive.”

Karina tells me that her cinematographer, Jody Muston, had previously had experience in the drama rather than the documentary genre. Her impressionist lens comes across in Blue – research about the way in which the advent of plastic and commercial fishing has contributed to the halving of the world’s marine population is presented in strikingly literal ways.

On screen, we see a huge tornado of grey fish circling. Jellyfish with red shower-cap heads and tentacles like streamers of pink smog. Shadowy divers encased in shiny black skins with flippered feet, both human and not. As always, the sea is startling in its strange beauty but this sense of surprise is one we have become accustomed to in an era of ever-newer, ever- more-expensive documentaries of the natural world. The images begin to be cut with another kind of image, seals that seem to be floating together in an ethereal stasis until the eye becomes attuned to something else: the animals are dead, caught up in a net to be carried by locals onto the beach. Baby sharks rocking, the white sheen of their bellies brilliant on the screen before they sink to the bottom of the sea, also dead. Plastic decorating the ocean, adorned with abject, colourful grime.

Later, a fictional scene: a woman sits at a table dining on a salad made with cherry tomatoes, rocket and chunks of plastic bag. She gobbles it up voraciously and wipes her lips with a napkin. A factual scene: dead birds are cut open to reveal stomachs filled with shards of technicolour plastic from bottle caps and pen lids. Damning statistics that are abstract to contemporary audiences too accustomed to being wooed for this or that cause are made strange and unhomely again.

The film ends with a still image of words forming a fish, the picture from the card Karina gave me at the start of our meeting. Phrases such as: “call for the protection of sharks”, “change to renewable energy”, “stop wasting stuff”. Blue does not merely depict the apocalypse of the ocean, it shows man and ocean existing in a liminal space in which our wrongs might yet be made right.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 7, 2017 as "Blue murder". Subscribe here.

Jessica Zhan Mei Yu
is a writer and PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne.

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