There are some films that defy explanation, their experience so bizarre that they actively seem to mock the viewer by presenting something that actively should not work. Dead Slow Ahead is very much such an experience. It’s an arthouse documentary, focusing on one of those great and mind-breaking wonders of the modern age, a technological normality of which so many surround and move the world, largely unseen and unnoticed. It’s an almost fetishist view of the dim and uncanny world of mechanics and engines that reside within these gargantuan machines.
Over a two-month voyage, Mauro Herce and his crew spent each day filming hours of footage inside the freighter, Fair Lady. The film charts her voyage from Ukraine to the United States, as the vessel hauls incalculable grains of wheat in her giant belly. It’s not a narrative film as such, since the passage of time is vague at best, the sense of movement only clear in moments of strife, or the few stolen minutes of stillness as the behemoth sits at anchor.
What comprehensible plot the documentary has revolves around a chance accident, which causes a major leak in the hold, spoiling part of the load. It’s the sort of event that in a more standard documentary would likely have a dry voiceover, explaining the events and lamenting the luck of the crew and company. In Dead Slow Ahead, we get no such explanation. The crew rush around performing actions which become clear in context, but are as seemingly insignificant as ants scrambling to rebuilt a badly damaged nest.
Herce’s film is shot as something midway between the epic sweeping vistas of a dystopian future and the technophobic horrors of an obscure science-fiction horror film. The cinematography slides opulently through the ship, here magnifying some small mechanism, there gazing at a grimy porthole behind which some fragment of human life exists alien to the ship itself. Comparison has been drawn toward 2001: a Space Odyssey, but in many ways, the film is more close to a David Lynch film; inscrutable and nightmarish, yet oddly beautiful in its contradictive mundanity.
Ironically, the place where the experience falters is the final act, where Merce tries to inject some aspect of the crew into the experience. We finally hear the crew phoning home to their loved ones, heard over long slow-panning shots of the engine rooms, but the disconnect means that the alien quality of the human experience no longer seems to factor into things. This is clearly the point, as the jarring strangeness of a neat and tidy break room is almost physically uncomfortable to look at after so much starkly uncanny grandeur. A stiff and unpleasant slamming home to earth after such a strange and dreamlike experience.
Screening as part of the Catalan Film Festival 2020