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Review: The Sailor


- Lucia Kašová's first feature-length documentary tells the story of an extraordinary person who lived his life on his own terms, and ended up alone and lonely

Review: The Sailor

In her first feature-length documentary, The Sailor [+see also:
film profile
, which world-premiered at Hot Docs, Slovak director Lucia Kašová tells the story of an extraordinary individual who ends up alone and lonely in the twilight years of his illustrious life.

We meet the protagonist, Paul Johnson, at 80 years old, living on his small boat, Cherub, anchored off the island of Carriacou in the Southern Caribbean. Just by looking at him, one would hardly guess that once upon a time, he was a famous boat designer: an old man with the eyes of a child, he is now living on a diet of beer and vodka, his body giving out just like his vessel.

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Kašová frames the film as a biography, and most of it is shot on the Cherub. The images of Johnson drinking and trying to deal with the boat's numerous issues, including a busted engine, are accompanied by his voice-over, telling his life story. He was born on a boat and had had a twin sister who died as a young kid when the Germans bombed her school – but he never says where exactly this happened. We do learn that he is an honorary citizen of Shetland and calls himself a Shetlander, as it is "the only place he has not been thrown out of".

He has crossed the Atlantic Ocean 40 times on his own, and even patented a small boat that can withstand such conditions. He has had many wives, all of whom would stay with him for roughly a decade, and then decide that they and their children needed a normal life, and leave him. Johnson doesn't blame them, but believes he had no choice. This relation between selfishness and freedom is the central theme of the film, something we are painfully reminded of when we see him cry while leafing through old photos.

And when Johnson is not on his boat, we only see him shopping for booze, trying to get a friendly local to help him fix the engine and drinking in the evening at a beach bar. In parallel, the radio announces a hurricane warning, and there is a new hypermarket being built on the island. The world is changing, and Johnson is left behind, "clinging to a tin trey", as he jots down in shaky handwriting.

DoP Martin Jurči's camera is always close to the protagonist, and we get intimately acquainted with his wrinkly, trembling body, his curly, blond hair which is going white, and his faded blue eyes, in which the remnants of a childish curiosity are drowned out by the effects of alcohol.

The beauty of the Caribbean paradise is certainly present in the film, but Kašová only uses it functionally, rarely holding on too long to the magnificent sunsets, lush vegetation, or even the clear, blue sea itself. And this decision was the right one: a viewer needs to spend time with Johnson in his natural, rusty, rickety habitat in order to start relating to such an outrageous life story and gaining empathy for the protagonist. When you spot his several shirts tidily lined up on hangers inside the cabin at the beginning of the film, it is an unexpected image because, by that point, you would only perceive him as some kind of tramp. By the end of the documentary, however, you realise that he is clinging to his past because the present holds nothing for him. "I never expected I'd live this bloody long," he says.

The Sailor was produced by Bratislava-based Toxpro.

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