Chiledoc Berlinale 2024

Of swans, seals, and whales

NATURE / The relationship between humans and animals of the oceans threatened by climate change and ever more frequent violent storms.
Director: Robin Petré
Country: Denmark

Robin Petré’s film From the Wild Sea is a poetic essay direct from the frontlines of the Anthropocene in which the animals – mute as they are – speak for themselves.

With sparse dialogue – captured from participants in marine animal rescue charities in Ireland, the UK and the Netherlands, or radio weather warnings of violent Atlantic storms heard in the background – and no narrative voiceover, From the Wild Sea builds its painful story on the foundations of a simple on-screen statement from the European Environment Agency that opens the film.

From the Wild Sea, a film by Robin Petré
From the Wild Sea, a film by Robin Petré

Under pressure

Marine life is under pressure across Europe’s seas. The seas are perceived as the last wilderness. In reality, even remote marine areas are impacted by human activities. Contaminants and marine litter are among the key pressures. Sea level rise and the increased frequency of events add to the coastal squeeze.

The film introduces us to its animal characters without further explanation: seals being coaxed out of cages to be released into the wild (we later learn this is on a beach at Courtown on the south-east coast of Ireland and hour’s drive from Dublin); swans being herded back into the waters of the Maas estuary in Rotterdam, cleaned up after a major oil spill contaminated hundreds; a dolphin being treated with first aid on a Cornish beach.

Petré allows her story to unfold slowly in opening scenes shot largely in a seal sanctuary. The grey visual tone makes the seals there all but invisible inside sheds with low overhead lighting. A seal is treated for minor injuries and fed through a tube. Its distress is evident but necessary to recover sufficiently to be released into the wild.

More and more seals are being washed ashore at the Irish seal sanctuary, requiring treatment as winter storms increase in violence and frequency.

In reality, even remote marine areas are impacted by human activities.


It is not only the violent waters that assail these agile, sleek and beautiful creatures: trapped by plastics or netting, they are wounded or lose an eye when blood flow is cut off around the head; others die after ingesting plastic that they vomit up soon after rescue, or plastic wires are found in their excrement, shortly before their death. The volunteers do their best, and even the seal that lost an eye is nursed back to health and released into the wild, a volunteer explaining that a seal does not need both eyes to survive in the waters of the Atlantic.

There have long been marine animal rescue charities across Europe’s coastal states. In Cornwall, the head of one organization, the British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), founded in 1988, explains that «since 2013-2014 it seems a switch has flicked and we’ve seen increasingly severe storms coming in from the Atlantic. We think this is driven by climate change», before adding: «We’ve a real sense of dread about how to allocate our resources and teams.»

Petré’s camera is ever discrete, allowing the images, background sounds (radio storm warnings are a repeated theme throughout), and scenes to speak for themselves. A glimpse of a souvenir shop, complete with plushy soft seal toys and a volunteer donning a seal suit, along with volunteers training on a beach with rubber life-size whales and dolphins, filled with water to approximate the marine animals’ real weight, gives background and depth to a film that focuses on the plight of animals whose habitats are becoming ever more dangerous thanks to unchecked human activity and pollution.

From the Wild Sea, a film by Robin Petré
From the Wild Sea, a film by Robin Petré

Avoidable pain

This is a story of avoidable pain and confusion: the Atlantic seal rescued off the coast of Morocco and a long way from the Arctic waters it usually inhabits. Passed to a Portuguese charity before heading for the Cornish-based BDMLR, who released it as far north as they could, it was fitted with a GPS device from the Orkney Islands north of Scotland. It swam north for a long time before coming across a continental shelf and then headed south again before washing up in Spain, from where it was returned to Cornwall for re-release.

The film takes a darker turn as the camera follows a couple of autopsies – first that of a dead dolphin, marked by various abrasions including deep cuts in its back and dorsal fin; a massive fin whale is washed ashore in Cornwall at the mouth of the river Helston, where it slowly suffocates from its bodyweight (this species can only support its bodyweight when afloat in water.) Wounded and bloodied, the 19-metre long leviathan dies before high tide can reach it. Veterinary surgeons arrive to perform an autopsy in-situ on the animals, which it is noted is already malnourished and underweight for its age.

In another scene, a shivering, diseased seal, sick with a deep but unknown infection, breathes its last before the silent eye of the camera, its slick soft-furred skin becoming still before our eyes.

The film ends where it begins – with more images of the release of seals in Ireland and swans in the Netherlands, suggesting some hope that sanity will perhaps one day prevail and humankind shall pull back from the worse excesses of climate change and the impact of the Anthropocene.

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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