For over two months, Mauro Herce and his crew travelled aboard the freighter My Fair Lady, shooting 14-16 hours a day as it made it laborious journey from Ukraine to New Orleans. Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, Dead Slow Ahead detaches itself from reality in favour of setting a science fiction, dystopian tone. Welding disparate images and foreboding sounds from deep within the labyrinthine corridors of the ship, Herce has transformed what could have been a dull documentation of life aboard the ship and imbued it with an otherworldly sense of wonder.
Industrial plants sprawl across the shoreline like mechanical insects, and endless wake is churned out and becomes the ship’s soundtrack, colossal mounds of wheat are guarded like a dragon’s golden hoard, radar blips and unknown mechanical whirs unsettle any sense of calm complacency. The sea and sky shift in the light as if on an alien planet, With minimal human elements (they come and go, with infinitely small problems like phoning family, seeming inconsequential in the light of the behemoth below their feet), there isn’t an easy entry point into the film’s wavelength. Either you brace yourself for the crashing waves of light, shadow, and mechanical groaning, fighting against it, or you dive in head first. Comparisons with the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (responsible for the similarly visceral documentary Leviathan) are sure to crop up, yet Dead Slow Ahead is distinct enough to allow it to stand or fall on its own. If anything, this could be a sign that a new form of documentary filmmaking is generating steam, leading to even more in the same vein in the future.
If there is any criticism to be leveled at Mauro Herce’s film, it is the lack of social or economic commentary. The film simply exists. While perhaps more of an issue for those to whom the film was marketed as an allegorical take on capitalism, the film itself is less concerned with delivering a message, choosing to instead issue an invitation to detach oneself from reality and feel the discovery of a child again. Without an ideological axe to grind, Dead Slow Ahead allows its form to take precedence, presenting life on board the ship as an aberrant manifestation of what is and is not real. This subtext of insignificance, or at least of the subservience of man to machine, may have political/social correlations, but the film does not dwell on them in order to convince the viewer of a certain perspective, but rather to submerge them in its rhythm until they are completely lost.
A voyage beyond reality, constructing an alien atmosphere of indiscernible sounds and sights, Dead Slow Ahead is a masterpiece of mood and almost approaches the ever ambiguous concept of “pure cinema”.
Subtitles:English, French, Spanish, Catalan