Dead Slow Ahead is a transcendent sci-fi documentary that must be experienced

Life in the machine


I was beginning to have the itch, a low-level anxiety that occurs on the third or fourth day of a film festival when you haven't seen anything you feel terribly strongly about one way or another. SXSW, in addition to being a premiere showcase for brands, bands and media outlets, happens to have a huge and often formless-feeling film lineup, but last year I had a pretty good track record. The festival's proximity to music and tech culture has resulted in an unofficial tendency toward great music documentaries and outside-the-box genre films, some of my favorite subgenres. This year, though, it was hard to find anything to grasp at in the overwhelming program of mumble-horror, internet horror, iPhone movies, and meditative dramas about the nature of relationships and technology.

I had seen the excellent Mo' Wax Records documentary Artist and Repertoire earlier in the day, but the itch was still lingering. So last night, exhausted from a day of walking and needing refuge from the deafening churn of 6th Street at peak cocktail hour, my boyfriend and I decided to do a little festival roulette. We walked up to the Ritz, scanned the schedule for the next feature screening, and went into Dead Slow Ahead sight unseen. The title suggested horror — maybe zombies, maybe slow-moving zombies — and the only detail I had about it was that it was part of the SXglobal lineup, so we'd probably be reading some subtitles. There was no strategy involved, but strategy hadn't helped me too much so far.

All I can say is we were very, very lucky.

Dead Slow Ahead is not about zombies, but it is about slow-moving things. There are slow films that seem to position themselves as endurance tests to their audiences, but Dead Slow Ahead's pace has more in common with Slow TV; it becomes an ecstatic, almost physiological experience once you've submitted yourself to its rhythm. What first-time feature director Mauro Herce set out to do seems straightforward, almost clinical: document the journey of an enormous shipping freighter across the Atlantic Ocean. For two and a half months he and his sound technician rode with the crew as they transported their various cargo at anonymous ports around the world. To say that the film transcends that premise would be like saying SXSW has become a little commercial in the last decade.

This film has everything

There are very few films I've seen that I can confidently say "have everything." 2001: A Space Odyssey is one. Dead Slow Ahead is most certainly another. By "everything" I don't mean laughs, suspense, and heartwarming drama, I mean something closer to a full encapsulation of the universe. Much like 2001, Dead Slow Ahead is wordless for a huge opening stretch, detoxing you from linguistic patterns and any remnant of cinematic formula before it flings you into the outer reaches of human experience. This is a film with almost no dialogue, and shots that are held for minutes at a time, but it was the one of the most engrossing experiences I've ever had in a theater.

Also like 2001, Dead Slow Ahead is a science fiction film — the people and processes it chronicles just happen to exist on the same earth and the same timeline as you and I. The Fair Lady — that's the improbable name of the freighter — is a spaceship; a hulking, creaky behemoth, all putty-colored rivets and fluorescent-lit corridors, stubbornly cutting through the ocean on an autopilot program written by a post-capitalist society. The Filipino crew who toil aboard it aren't steering it; they're in service to it, gathering in their cramped mess halls and smoking rooms, the few square feet of space on the enormous vessel that seem to have been constructed with any regard to the scale and business of human life.

Dead Slow Ahead

El Viaje Films

The film starts off meditative, almost soothing. The first sounds we hear are the sleepy beeps and boops of the navigational system in the ship's bridge. We see brilliant, dramatic sunrises and a shaft of sunlight piercing down through storm clouds onto the surface of the ocean like a spotlight, thousands of miles from any other eye that might enjoy such beauty. But midway through the film (I hestitate to say how far through, because the nature of the editing completely skews any sense of time passing) a leak springs in the ship's hull, a cataclysmic disaster that plays out with the unhurried but inescapable matter-of-factness of global warming. The Fair Lady is transporting wheat; the wheat is getting wet, and so the small crew sets out on a Sisyphean mission to salvage what they can in small, buckets and an ad hoc pulley system, out of a container that appears to be the size of a high rise condo building.

There are no words to describe what it's like to watch this process, which Herce said in an interview took over a month. "Heartbreaking" and "mind-boggling" are in the neighborhood. But hearts and minds are of no concern to the Fair Lady. The film purposely keeps the location of the ship and its exact function murky for long stretches; these are answers to questions that serve no industrial function. (Deep into the film, we finally get a glimpse of the map on GPS, and that simple contextual reveal feels as profound as any Hitchcock twist.) We don't know the names of the crew; Herce never asks how they feel about their job or if they're scared or tired or lonely, because the Fair Lady doesn't care. This does not mean that Dead Slow Ahead doesn't care about the people on screen; on the contrary, only by taking this broad view are we able to truly comprehend the implications of their lives within this machine. There are films that emphasize nature's indifference to our goals and desires; here, nature and capitalism work in concert to render humanity nothing more than an errant smudge.

The men aboard do their monotonous work in resigned silence, then blow off steam in the karaoke lounge. For the first time we see them smiling, laughing and drinking, goofing off and enjoying the camaraderie while it lasts. But Herce lends this scene a narcotic, sickening dread, like something out of a David Lynch nightclub scene. This is "fun", as constructed by the system in which these men are cogs. "Fun" exists only as a reward to prolong one's capacity for work, of which there will always be more.

Dead Slow Ahead

El Viaje Films

Dead Slow Ahead's pace allows for plenty of contemplation, and at a certain point one's thoughts turn to their own place in this world, and the lottery of circumstance. Why did I get born into this life, where I get sent to places like SXSW? Why am I not working month-long stints on a freighter, instead of stressing over whether or not some movies will be any good, and trying to decide which PR agency cocktail party I'll stop by before the next screening? But when I exited the theater back out onto 6th again, bleary eyed and speechless as the party at the Capital One House raged across the street, it occurred to me that the difference is negligible. We're all negotiating life in a series of industrialized environments, virtual and otherwise, that are increasingly built without our basic emotional and biological needs in mind. Sometimes we get to see a beautiful sunset; other times we have to pull an all-nighter. We get an apple at lunch. And at night, we drink together and do karaoke, before waking up and starting it all over again.

This sounds like a downer, but it's only as depressing as any ego death is. It's a rare thing to get to see a film that is capable of provoking that kind of revelation. What Herce and his crew have accomplished is an invaluable feat of cinematic empathy and vision. And unlike even the most prophetic science fiction, you leave the theater knowing that the Fair Lady is still out in the ocean somewhere, hauling its grain or coal or iPhones to ports of call we'll never seen in our lifetimes.

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