Director: Gareth Bartlett
Running time: 15mins
In Greek myth, the immortal nymph Calypso enchanted Odysseus, the mortal traveller. He was so bewitched by her singing and love making that the hero was entrapped on Calypso’s Island for seven years. Eventually, Odysseus begged Zeus, the top god, to make Calypso set him free – which he did, and Odysseus went home to his wife and office job.
Your reviewer’s fantastical thought processes were prompted by the sight of Kalypso Bay, the setting for Gareth Bartlett’s short documentary, Mike & Maurice. The ‘bay’ is in fact one of the remote inlets that seem to occur with almost monotonous regularity along the rocky coast of southern Crete. Kalypso is breathtakingly beautiful – crystal clear waters shimmering amongst stark jagged rocks. One could easily imagine Odysseus, sitting on one of the rocks, pining for home. Thoughtfully for the comfort of present day tourists, a concrete path has been laid sporting a veritable phalanx of loungers, sunshades, and picnic tables.
Kalypso Bay is part of the Cretan tourist industrial complex and is aimed at visitors who want to pay for the experience of underwater aqualung diving in the limpid waters of the inlet. In his publicity material, Bartlett writes that, prior to the making of the film, he had never previously dived. So, he underwent diver training and learned underwater cinematography in order to tell his tale. The story Bartlett provides for us in Mike & Maurice is centred on the relationship between a human diver and a fish.
The diver Mike Sanders is, we assume (though we are never explicitly told), one of the staff at the resort. Using talking head interview footage, the director gives us some pretty cliched biographical detail for Sanders – wanted to be an astronaut but failing that, inspired by Jacques Cousteau documentaries, became a diver swapping the deep blue of the heavens for the deep blue of the ocean.
After the Sanders biographical scene setting, Bartlett moves to the central focus of the film – Maurice, the fish. Over a couple of seasons of diving, Sanders noticed that a particular fish, whom he named Maurice, would follow him around the bay. Maurice is a sea bream and is a rather beautiful fish. Bartlett filmed some of the encounters and the footage we are given is indeed extraordinary – it certainly seems to the viewer that Maurice has developed some sort of uncanny relationship with Sanders.
Given that the director is a neophyte diver and first-time underwater filmmaker, the footage of Sanders and Maurice – as well as that of the broader marine life of the bay – is a triumph. There is so much footage of memorable and breathtakingly beautiful imagery, which Bartlett should be proud of.
The problem here is that the director can hold the audience for only so long with a record of a human swimming with a fish. Once we have registered the strangeness of the relationship, there is not a lot that we can do with it. Possibly the footage would be ideal for one of those whimsical, short items that sometimes end regional TV news programmes – and now the car that runs on marmalade type of thing.
I found it hard to visualise what type of audience Bartlett is aiming to reach. The scenes with Maurice following Sanders would certainly work well on TikTok but Bartlett obviously has ambitions for the movie as a fully-fledged documentary. I would suggest in order to achieve this aim it would have been useful to have had another talking head apart from Sanders, even though he comes across as likable and charismatic. Having an animal psychologist or a marine biologist to give their take on Maurice’s unusual behaviour would have provided some depth and context for the narrative.
Instead, Bartlett, in order to reify his ambitions, develops the storyline with the introduction of an extremely well-worn topos – we learn there is Trouble In Paradise. Sanders reveals to camera their worries as to the threat to Maurice from people fishing by line and by high-tech harpoons. The assumption that the director makes here is that the audience has somehow identified with Maurice – he may be just a fish, but he is one of us. We learn that fishing has been banned in the bay – we are never told on what authority. We are shown a staged shot of a diver brandishing a fearsome harpoon and a blurred long distance shot of the dastardly enemy – a couple of people fishing from a boat.
The threat to Eden approach comes across as distinctly odd, as it is not given any socio-economic context. The tourist industry is held up as representing the Good Guys; even though it has turned a piece of pristine coastline into a concrete cartoon. Meanwhile (presumably) local people, accessing their rights to the commons, are pictured as the Bad Guys.
There is one tantalising moment, where it appears that Bartlett is about to delve a little deeper – we see shots of the resort in winter. However, there is no follow through – the intention here is to simply prompt the viewer to ponder what will happen to Maurice in winter. There is no exploration as to the way that local humans live their lives when the service industry closes down for the season – maybe they fish for a living?
Mike & Maurice is, then, a deeply uncurious, uninquiring piece of filmmaking – purely focused on the man and fish gig. Roads are not taken. For instance, there is a memorable image of the wreck of some kind of commercial or military vehicle rusting on the sea floor – so powerful a shot that the director used it as one of the movie’s publicity stills. We are instantly intrigued – there is a story there. But the film blandly returns to Maurice without comment. There is no interest in the archaeology of the human impact on the bay’s environment.
Bartlett has achieved a lot in the making of Mike & Maurice – becoming an adept sub-sea camera operative is no small achievement. The shots of Maurice and the sea world show the filmmaker has a rare talent for wildlife cinematography and gets what works in nature documentary. My advice for future projects, if they involve humans, is to be a lot more curious and maybe take an interest in the forms and structures that condition, and often dictate, how we as humans interact with one another.