First Step Swim (2021) Eye for Film Film Review

“Caitlin McMullan’s film is a delight.”

Against the deep black blue of the water, dark velvet, the swimsuit elects the torso, the arms. Hands and a head in pale contrast with the dark hair of the sea, the loch at the locks. Birdsong and limitless forest, a film tune. The heat of the sun a memory summoned by the sight of the hair on the nape of the neck, this alchemy of color by Kodachrome or CCD is enough to find us miles away from Venus.

The feeling abounds. The suffocation of voices elsewhere, refraction and reflection. The sound of water, its sight, waves of waves of waves. Weeds just below the surface, and everywhere the opportunity to look a little deeper. Materiality everywhere. Red with fabric and round glasses, the push of plastic and supple flesh against the generous stems of green grass.

Caitlin McMullan’s film is a delight. Leveraging Kirstin McMahon’s camera work and Joe Howe’s sound to create something as complex as it is poetic, it transports. Like other films at the Glasgow Short Film Festival in 2022, it benefited from descriptive subtitles from Matchbox Cineclub’s Cinesub programme. Not so much in terms of clarity, although that helped, as adding another interpretative lens. The act of reading, searching, feeling is one of the true delights of cinema. We could call this documentary because the things it shows happened, but by the same lack of generosity we will also remember seeing daffodils during his wanderings. The value of a word is greater than its original meaning. Here too, that first step is a swim, but from there, the title and all, come big leaps.

In tone, literally in places with his minimalist music, it’s something to ponder. The essence of romantic literature can be distilled into a moment of beauty, recalled at leisure, but in this cold calculus there is room between the engineering of intent and the sweep and curve of poetry. Archly supported, arch up. There are a variety of techniques here, not just the strokes of this titular swimmer, but the camera above and below the water. The credits for safety and drone pilots are not just about accessibility, but about ambition. The water can be calm at times, but it runs deep throughout it, these are opportunities to see and feel that sensation.

A first film for McMullan, the enveloping environment was compelling enough for a small screen that I can only envy those who have seen it on a bigger one. The carrying capacity of the film here to see. Not just the cold mechanics of this station wagon full of videotapes on a virtual highway, but the deeper sense of meaning that goes beyond encoding to arouse and invoke. The waves themselves may generate interference, but they carry with them tides of inference, the ripple of the handmade and the residue of heartfelt feeling. First up, First Step Swim is a clear indicator of talent and with the strength of his shots McMullan will hopefully get the chance to make more splashes.

Reviewed on: Apr 30, 2022

About Herbert L. Leonard

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