Any cinematographer worth his salt is probably already aware of “Raw Herring,” which may not sound appetizing to everyone (with onions? serve ‘em up …) but is a miraculous exercise in the art of the camera. It may also serve as a breath of fresh air to audiences fed up with the sterile artifice of so much CGI-driven cinema.
Leonard Retel Helmrich, the Dutch-born director with Indonesian roots (his sister, Hetty Naaijkens-Retel Helmrich, usually his producer, has co-director credit here) is a much-honored documentarian, notably for his trilogy “Eye of the Day,” “Shape of the Moon” and “Position Among the Stars.”
But he’s also a cinematographic magician: In charting the course of Netherlands fishermen harvesting the year’s first haul of Dutch New Herring (a traditional delicacy in Holland), Helmrich does things that seem to defy physics -- while firing the imagination about what’s possible with a camera. The opening shot, of a combination fishing trawler/processing factory, doesn’t draw a lot of attention to itself. But the viewer does wonder how it was shot – from water level, and the middle of the sea. What follows is a frame that fills with yammering gulls, the camp followers of the fishing world, literally flying into the lens. One imagines Helmrich’s bait-covered camera, or Helmrich too, bobbing along in the North Sea.
And then, things get really interesting – we see the gulls diving, and when they do, the camera follows them under water. Bubble trails and birds crisscross the image, gulls in search of fish. Then, what seems to be a shot of the gulls floating with their heads beneath the surface turns out – and turns around – to be an upside-down shot of the gulls above the surface; what we’d been seeing was a sub-surface shot, taken amid that riot of hungry gulls.
The filmmakers’ approach, which they call “single-shot cinema,” involves long, intimate, and fluid takes, has been accomplished in various ways in earlier films – putting the camera on a bamboo rod, for instance, to get a shot from outside a moving train. Or dangling it off a nose-bleed inducing trestle, to capture a subject casually walking across. But the acrobatic visuals are just part of the story here, which involves a salty crew of Dutchmen, and some of their sons, competing against Norwegians, Swedes and a diminished population of herring, angling to bring back the prized fish to the hungry Dutch.
The agility of Helmrich’s shooting is amazing, when one becomes conscious of it, but there’s other astounding stuff in “Raw Herring,” including the miles of cables, acres of net and millions of fish that come pouring out of a sea that, as the film acknowledges silently, isn’t going to remain so bountiful forever.