Screenshot 2021 03 02 at 14 07 29

‘[F]ear, truth, I am in the centre of everything that screams and teems’.[1] Here, Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector could be speaking of Joana Andrade, tiny surfer of monster Portuguese waves and the central, steadying presence in Big vs. Small (dir. Minna Dufton), a film about hydrologic extremes: sea canyons creating giant walls of roaring surf; still, soft, black depths under thick ice in Finland. Dufton’s celebratory vision tracks Andrade’s body conducting magnetic intensity in these terrifying, invigorating waters, recalling Lispector’s ‘actual perishable instant’ [2].

But—like the waves which manifest ‘oscillating ocean time’—Big vs. Small has a compressed relationship to ‘the moment’ and the momentous.[3] To return to Lispector: ‘for now time is the duration of a thought’.[4] Spliced between Tim Bonython’s bold hand-held big-wave filming comes Sakke Kantosalo’s quiet, thoughtful, precise and luminescent cinematography: of crux scenes in Finland, of family life, of meditation, of intimate preparation for great risk, and of Andrade’s pensive face. Big vs. Small’s colour palette imitates its emotional landscape: composed, despite the attention-grabbing context of daredevil extreme sport, of memory, determination, appraisal, reckoning.

Perhaps it’s because it’s Pisces season, and I am a Pisces. Perhaps it’s because it’s been over a year since I felt the exquisite sensation of cold water closing over my head, perhaps it’s because I just miss the sea: whatever, this film keeps bringing things to the surface.

I am maybe 2 metres under water, standing in a quarry somewhere on Dartmoor, wearing diving equipment: heavy, rubbery, cumbersome. At 5’1” I feel like a child wearing equipment made for grownups. The breathing apparatus makes the corners of my mouth hurt. Everyone else is on the shore, in the November rain, waiting to go home. But I can’t do the bit where you have to take your mask off underwater and put it back on. So I have to stay behind, in freezing water filled with a beige-y mist of fine silt. There are no fish in this quarry; the instructor thinks there may be a newt somewhere. The object of scrutiny is me. This is an endurance test. I can’t stand it. But there is someone with me, the kinder of the two instructors (the one who wasn’t in the SAS). He’s calmly standing there with me, signalling to just keep looking at him. I am dazed as I perceive (dimly through panic) what feels like an act of pure, steady aid.

I am reminded of the man in the quarry as my eye catches the lightest gesture of care, unobtrusively recorded by Dufton’s empathetic direction, as Johanna Nordblad briefly places her hand on Andrade’s back, about halfway through the film. Floating face down in the Allas Sea Pool, Helsinki, Andrade is learning to hold her breath; Nordblad is her aide (‘I will take care of you’). Andrade is the first woman in the world to ride the Earth’s biggest waves, hurled up from the sea at Navaré, Portugal. Nordblad is a World Record-holding freediving athlete (she has swum 50m under ice wearing only her swimsuit). These are extraordinary women, and this is an extraordinary film about learning to stay alive.

Early on, Andrade remarks that a wave’s immensity isn’t always apparent to the surfer: ‘you don’t realise until you see the photos’. This formulation of aftermath could stand for much of what this film subtly explores. From its opening scenes, fear takes centre stage: trembling, apprehension, terror. Careering into the unconscionable speed of monster waves, the roaring sound, the sheer frenetic force, is both stomach-lurching and exhilarating. But despite this incredible hurly-burly, this is a film about steady strength. It was Dufton who suggested that Andrade work with Nordblad at the level of breath (Lispector again: ‘all I have is the order of my breath. I let myself happen’) to add to her self-protective resources at sea.[5]

The scenes in Finland, where Nordblad gently validates Andrade’s capacity to survive, are mesmerising, moving. As the colour palette and soundscape generate sensations through bubbling water, scrunching snow, warm sun, coloured saints in a small church, the jewelled feathers of a peacock that strolls a swimming pool’s perimeter, we are alerted to the past, the present, to moments of meditation and beautiful bodily control: grace notes, it turns out, in counterpoint to Andrade’s soft, understated reporting of trauma, of flashback, of flinches, of compulsive flight.

Between Andrade’s eyebrows are the classic paired creases of the watchful, uncertain observer (she makes me reconsider everything about extreme sport ‘personality’). These lovely lines—marks of thought, drive, loneliness, trouble—make carvings of twoness. The apparently solitary surfer is always bound to another (watching Sérgio Cosme, Andrade’s loyal rescue pilot, help her in and out of her equipment is a lesson in service). Like the two fish of the Pisces constellation, tied together to evade danger, Andrade and Nordblad’s ‘breathing together’ (Lispector yet again: ‘I am I. And you are you. It is vast, and will endure’) is gorgeous, exquisite, calming.[6]


[1] Clarice Lispector, Água Viva, trans. by Stefan Tobler (New Directions, 2012), p. 16.

[2] Lispector, p. 18.

[3] Stefan Helmreich, ‘Time and the Tsunami’, Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 6.3 (2006), p. 3.

[4] Lispector, p. 16.

[5] Lispector, p. 17.

[6] Lispector, p. 88.


Rhian Williams is a writer and homemaker based in Glasgow. She writes regularly at, and recently co-edited the weird folds: everyday poems from the anthropocene (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2020) with Maria Sledmere.


Glasgow Film Festival is running online until the 7th March 2021…