Still from Eva Jack Whale Watching 2021
Eva Jack, ‘Whale Watching’, 2021

This article is a response to a film programme that was screened as part of SALT, a season of residencies and commissions which consider Edinburgh’s coastal ecologies within the global climate crisis. SALT is commissioned by Art Walk Projects, who have joined forces with MAP on a new editorial partnership, supporting contemporary art writing through experimental approaches to publishing.

‘Anyway, the next thing anybody knows we are out on the beach, and Dolores and Black Mike and Scoodles Shea and Benny the Blond Jew are in their bathing suits and the dawn is touching up the old ocean very beautiful.’

So says the narrator of Damon Runyon’s short story, Dark Dolores. Like the rest of his oeuvre, it’s an utterly distinctive slice of Prohibition-era genius, in which three feuding mobsters in Atlantic City get sidetracked by Dolores, ‘a doll who means business’. They’re all three smitten, but it ends badly; they hadn’t really been paying attention when this beautiful dame invited them into the sea.

It’s a story that came to mind as I viewed the film programme Murky Waters, curated by Rosy Naylor as part of Art Walk Porty in September 2022. This grouping of seven shorts shares some of the concerns of Runyon’s masterpiece: oceans. Storytelling and history. Threat and allure. The shore line. Close attention. Death.

Tamsin Grainger’s ‘Precarious Edge’ notices the bodies of all the dead guillemots washed up along Portobello Beach (the screening in September was held, mis-en-abîmely, on Portobello Promenade; find out more about the seven films here. In ‘Whale Watching’, too, Eva Jack dissects the body of, and the body of knowledge about, the whale, in a flowing monologue.

This is something striking about the programme: the range of voices. Jack’s work involves her describing how she’s never seen a whale with her own eyes. So she takes a deep dive into the archive, viewing at a remove, looking at other pictures of the whale in order to build up her own. And all the while (I typo’d ‘all the whale’) she’s talking, talking, recounting what she’s found, what she feels.

Greta McMillan in ‘Change Direction’ has a different way with words. She gets her fellow school-pupils to declaim extracts from Greta Thunberg’s book, Our House is On Fire, while McMillan herself uses a voice synthesizer. This points to a leveling effect of the art-form: all of the filmmakers, whatever their extent of able-bodiedness, are digitally promulgating their thoughts. Without the technology, we wouldn’t be hearing any of their voices.

While Jack’s work has one constant narrative over the images, ‘The Longshore Drift’, by Jane Watt & SE Barnet, has no spoken words at all. They aren’t needed, as the rhythm of the ranging camera over the eroding Suffolk shoreline draws you in, sucks you under. It’s another way to tell a story: asking the audience to look with you, to think in pictures and sounds, rather than telling them with words. Sometimes the strongest stories emerge in this way.

Stories such as Jane Topping’s ‘The Man who Fell to Millom’, which kaleidoscopes together a decaying seashore mining town, a lone fugitive figure, time travel and space-invader flower-heads. There’s an excellent soundscape by Mark Vernon; the only words are captions on screen of some scraps of poetry, and the text on a handful of postcards. Things are topsy-turvey: we don’t know who is quite where, when or why, but it’s great, like real dispatches from a place that doesn’t quite exist, or maybe vice versa. Topping shows us just enough to lure us in, then leaves us to work out what we want to understand, what from our own imaginative histories we’d like to project onto the film.

This is the second strand that took me: the way the filmmakers are interested not just in the water but in the lens, the camera itself. You see this in Martina O’Brien’s B-scope, which considers in split-screen the equipment used for filming and data-gathering along the sea bed, and the technology of the archive.

Still from Tony Hill Water Work 1987
Tony Hill, ‘Water Work’, 1987

But it’s most strongly evident in Tony Hill’s ‘Water Work’, a lovely film of people in a swimming pool, as they float, twirl, breathe; they sink and bubble around. This is how their bodies move, but our understanding is mediated by the way in which water and light interact. Bodies reflect off the surface to make an alphabet of angles and ankles. Diffraction magnifies and distorts. But the camera’s optics also clarify, showing us things that the naked, immersed eye would not register: patterns of bubbles, a long stretch of time underwater. We can suddenly see clearly what we knew must be there.

It’s an affectionate film, based on dedicated observation, with its own take on voice and sound: a swimmer plucks the surface of the water as though he’s playing a harp, and you can almost hear it. There’s lots of dialogue in this one, but we can’t understand it; the speakers are underwater! As in ‘Millom’, things are suddenly the wrong way up; gravity plays out differently here. Is it the camera, the water, our own woozy, faulty perception that causes it? It’s all of them, stirred together.

‘Water Work’ is the oldest of the seven films, dating from 1987, whereas the rest were made within the last four years. But they work well together, sharing, along with a focus on voice and on the camera in the water, this quality of paying close attention.

To return to Runyon’s short story, it ends with Dark Dolores extracting her revenge, to the awed admiration of the surviving gangsters. She’s shown that the ocean has a history, that the water is both an opportunity and a danger. And you have to look carefully at whatever you encounter there. The filmmakers in Murky Waters have got a sense of this too, applying their careful vision, their distinctive narrative voices, to tell us good stories. They speak, I think, alongside Runyon’s narrator, in admiring the old ocean, very beautiful.


Melissa McCarthy is the author of Sharks, Death, Surfers: An Illustrated Companion (Berlin: Sternberg, 2019). Her next book, Photo, Phyto, Proto, Nitro, comes out in 2023, from Sagging Meniscus Press. Her radio broadcasts from Radiophrenia and Resonance FM, and other writing, are available here.


The Art Walk Projects SALT programme culminates in the publication of a book in spring 2023.