Boats. Big boats. Big men on big boats. Also, prostitutes.
These are the ingredients of Exotica, Erotica, Etc., which turned out to be both less exotic and less erotic than I’d anticipated when I requested a press ticket. A poetic documentary, the film comes to us from Greek visual artist Evangelia Kranioti, who for half a decade explored life on the ocean, embedding herself aboard colossal cargo ships.
Originally a photographic project, the finished product is a woozily philosophical treatise on life lived atop the ocean waves. We explore the interiors of these massive ships; grand canyons of containers, vast interior cavities and corridors that appear to telescope off into infinity. As we learn about the ships, we also learn about the men that occupy them; their work and their play (which appears to be dancing to ABBA).
Punctuating this is hypnotic ocean photography. Whether it be stormy swells that buck the men to and fro, ice-floes crunching under a mighty prow or eerily calm, somnambulant doldrums, the watery landscape around is always unfathomably huge. This mighty cargo ship may weigh a thousand tonnes, but through Kranioti’s lens it’s a mere pinprick in the face of the massive ocean.
The final major element is the unhappily landlocked Sandy. She’s spent her youth in sexual service to sailors of all varieties, though now that her beauty has faded, she’s left beached and wistful in Santiago. She reflects on what it means to pay someone to love you, her memories of some of the thousands of men she’s slept with and outlines a bevvy of regrets, prime among them never having children. Despite that she’s curiously sanguine, neither condemning nor praising the choices she made.
For my money, the best bits of Exotica, Erotica, Etc. showcased the boats themselves. Kranioti shoots the cavernous holds as if they’re cathedrals – in awe of their size and power. Men scurry like ants about the decks, looking intensely vulnerable against the backdrop of the frothing ocean. When water gets into the boat, sluicing violently through drains or swept down rusty pipes, we get a sense that we’re clinging to the back of some giant leviathan as it shiftlessly groans around the world.
From a documentary viewpoint, this is undoubtedly interesting material, and Kranioti’s keen eye for framing and texture ensures that the film is never anything less than visually luscious. Emotionally, it’s a bit of a tougher beast to get to grips with. While the camera occupies the same space as the sailors, it’s as if we’re the ghost at the party. Consequently, the sailors stay at arms length – though we observe them we never get to know them.
We do get to know Sandy quite well, and she’s undoubtedly an interesting subject. Yet the film can’t quite decide whether she should be the core of the piece or not. In a post screening Q&A, Kranioti admitted that she’d met Sandy at the very end of the project, deciding to edit much of the 450 hours of footage she’d shot around her memories. This just about works.
That the focus of the project shifted multiple times is often easy to tell and the end result feels a bit Frankensteined together. Though lyrical and poetic, meaning remains opaque, the film settling for philosophical ponderings about how the ocean represents infinite loneliness and so on.
I liked Exotica, Erotica, Etc., though the languid pace, coupled with images of gently swelling waves and hissing spray had a soporific effect. It’s an undoubtedly grand visual achievement – perfectly capturing a sea-flecked industrial aesthetic. I just wish it had a clearer manifesto and was a bit more structurally coherent.
Exotica, Erotica, Etc. is a grand visual achievement, but I just wish it was a bit more structurally coherent.