“Is there a connection between love and the ocean?” asked a viewer of Atlantic’s director, Jan-Willem van Ewijk, during the post-screening interview session at the International Film Festival Rotterdam. “Yes, I believe there is”, was his reply. Atlantic, the director’s second feature since his departure from a career in investment banking, is a love letter to the ocean, to the meeting of cultures, and to love itself.
Living in a tiny village on the coast of Morocco, Fettah (Fettah Lamara) has become enchanted with the surfing culture that congregates there every summer, befriending surfers from a diverse range of locales. Herein lies one of the central interests of Jan-Willem’s film: the fascination with, and exchange between, foreign cultures. The surfers flock to Morocco to partake in their sport, enjoying the quaint primitivism of the tiny village, and Fettah is fascinated by the apparent splendour in the lives of his European and American friends. Indeed, despite the evident expectations of his family and friends for a marriage between Fettah and his cousin, whose romantic interest is met with a decidedly platonic response, he dreams only of the mystery and wonder that the ocean represents.
Outwith the brief surfing season, Fettah works with his aged father aboard an equally dated fishing boat, catching only enough to sustain themselves in a simple and artisanal lifestyle. When his friends Jan (the director himself) and Alexandra (Thekla Reuten) come to stay with him during the brief surfing season, Fettah finds himself captivated by the European woman and the culture she hails from, so disparate from his own. When the foreigners leave once again, his attention returns to the ocean as an object of longing and vessel of desire. Against the advice of his family, he decides to embark on the formidable journey up the coast on his windsurfer, in the pursuit of that which he cherishes.
Though terms such as “poetic” were bandied about in the post-screening Q&A session, the film is guilty of being rather obtuse in its attempts to offer depth. The footage of the ocean is beautiful, offering a diverse range of seascapes which vary as much in turbulence as they do in lighting. The skill of the surfers is likewise showcased, both those like Lamara, who was already an accomplished surfer, and those like Reuten, who learned specifically for the film. The dialogue is sparse and largely trifling, however, and the film’s characters are, by its end, as enigmatic as they were in its beginning. The film relies on its visuals and the expansive spectacle of the ocean to captivate its audience, expecting them to infer implications about its meditative nature for themselves.
This is, of course, by no means an entirely negative approach; the film becomes something of a mood piece – its sedate, meandering narrative, and the ever present noises of the ocean, washing over the cinema to impart a sense of the meditative calm Fettah feels when immersed in the vast and mysterious force of nature upon which he performs his sport. To call Atlantic “poetic” implies its focus on imparting emotion through its imagery, opting, in the vein of Tarkovsky, for evocation rather than solid meaning.
In its expression of love for the sport of windsurfing, the ocean, and the relationships that are built between people, cultures, and communities through its practice, Atlantic is a pleasant little piece of filmmaking. The film may, like the ocean that is its focus, have unplumbed depths, but one suspects that its impact is largely visceral, and any further meaning that may be inferred is largely subjective.