Feature Film: Kiss the Water

Eric Steel’s documentary explores the enigmatic life of Megan Boyd, who before she died was a creator of fishing flies – A documentary without absolutes, she remains as enigmatic even after the story is told


In a review of films from 2013, Robert Greene wrote that “This is the year we can definitively say we are living in a Golden Age of Nonfiction.” It was the year, he argued, which saw a mass of documentaries appear in a confident new form, boldly shaking off the commitment to conventional, journalistic narrative, and challenging preconceived standards of representation.

Such formal innovations are not so novel to those with a knowledge of the history of Nonfiction film (enter Chris Marker, Patrick Keiller, Alain Tanner, to name only a few), but what Greene remarks on is the present volume of filmmakers who are now drawn to this free form. These filmmakers consider truth to be subjective, not something that can be so readily “revealed”. They seek to do with their cameras what the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes sought to achieve in his literature. “I never wanted to resolve an enigma,” he wrote, “but to point out that there was an enigma”.

Eric Steel’s Kiss the Water is in many ways exemplary of this Nonfiction cinematic form. On the one hand it professes to tell the tale of Megan Boyd, an eccentric, solitary figure who handcrafted enchantingly delicate fishing flies for the equally solitary figure of the angler, and whose work fascinated museums and collectors around the world. But a key subject to this film is also the question of representation itself. The film weaves static shots of breathtaking Scottish scenery and “talking heads” — that recognisable trope of documentary — with hand-painted animation that dances across the screen in dense, heavy brushstrokes, and intriguing sequences that drift around the isolated coastal ruin that was Boyd’s home.

The narrative of Kiss the Water seems so meandering, so perpetually in flux, that the shots of flowing rivers and rolling tides appear as a suitable metaphor. One moment we hear the careful instructions of how to tie flies, the next we hear about Megan’s childhood, followed by a colourful animated sequence, then an account of the lives of fly fishermen (and women, for women, we discover, are the best fly fishers).

As the film winds and unwinds, like the threads we see wrapped round and round a fly fisher’s hook, a sense of who Megan was builds in your mind whilst no actual image of her is presented. This might be a cause for frustration, but there is pleasure in letting one’s mind wander into the lives of others, as Steel himself explains at the beginning of the film, and this is what this film invites you to do. Few lives really move in such neat, tidy and predictable patterns anyway, and in order to appreciate this form of Nonfiction cinema we must accept that the truth is something not wholly tangible. Rather than leaving no stone unturned, Kiss the Water, prefers to let your attention flow over them, marvelling at what may lie beneath. Even when we do receive the barest glimpse of Boyd it seems ultimately inconsequential; she is elsewhere.  

There is obviously no attempt to document Boyd’s life in the literal sense. We hear of the long journey that people took to make it to her door and at times it feels like we too are on that journey. As various people who encountered Megan while she was alive (whose names remain unknown during the film) chip in to share their memories, there is an element of mythmaking about the film that felt concerning. It does seem to drift into the realm of the fanciful at times, particularly concerning Megan’s personal life. The subtitle to the film is “A Love Story” and one does wonder what Megan herself would have thought about such a hazy and romantic depiction of her seemingly mysterious and fancy-free existence.  Steel’s resistance to plunge deeper into Megan’s life and work may leave one with the same impression that an admirer once wrote to tell her about; that her work was in some way “magical.” At the same time it may be good to remember the words of one of Megan’s schoolmates in the film; “she was Megan, and that was it.”

It is really a minor aside to what is a very gentle and artful film that fills your head with the joys of the improbable yet possible in life. Megan Boyd was someone who lived according to her own will, in general isolation, whilst maintaining an ability to connect with others that transcended most modern technologies and comforts. Opportunities to become enchanted in our own lives are precious few, as the many admirers of Megan’s work must have known, and for a documentary about a seemingly simple subject to achieve such a thing is a delight.

(Kiss the Water is showing at the ICA until 29th January and JW3 until 28th January. For other screenings visit the website http://kiss-the-water.com)

Becky is a writer, editor and researcher of visual arts and the environment. She lives in Oxford.

She works collaboratively with Inheritance Projects—a small group of independent curators and researchers that organise exhibitions, events, new commissions, publications and research projects.

She blogs at Atmospheres of Uncertainty.

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