Folco Quilici


The legendary Italian director and writer Folco Quilici introduces us to the wonders of the seas, and tells us why they matter.

As soon as I landed for the first time in Australia, I headed to a vast beach not far from Sydney. I was impatient to fulfill a long-held desire to come face to face with the largest ocean in the world, the Pacific.

As the Pacific Ocean lay before me, my mind wandered to Captain Cook and the mutineers of the Bounty, the Polynesian migrants. As expected, I was moved. Not so much by the ocean’s waves, massive though they were, nor by the way it extended into infinity, but by the memory of people and events that have, along with thousands more, created the mythology of this particular ocean. It was not the vision of this blue expanse that moved me - its horizon did not appear that different from any other - though the waves crashed down more powerfully on this Australian beach than any of the others I had visited on the Mediterranean, the North Sea or the Atlantic.

There were no other striking differences, however, and that’s why a question came to mind, one that came back to me several times after that: is the ocean the outstanding wonder of our planet?

My answer is no. After many travels, various crossings and countless sea dives, after experiencing both calm and stormy seas, I am convinced that there is no comparison between the many varieties of terrestrial landscapes (forests, deserts, mountains, valleys, rivers, lakes and volcanoes) and what the sea can offer.

The polar seas are different from the warmer ones by virtue of their ice; the tropical seas by virtue of their coral seabeds. That’s three marine landscapes versus 300,000, even millions of terrestrial landscapes.

So why does the mere mention of the word ‘sea’ conjure up so much emotion and excitement?

The answer may be that as soon as I mention the sea or the ocean I start thinking not of a landscape but of the challenge, maybe the greatest that exists, between man and nature. It’s a challenge that has allowed us to tackle, and cohabit with, the power and immensity of the world’s seas. It has been a success story, despite humans not being amphibians and being devoid of fins, tails or gills.

One need only think of the adventures and the many adversities faced by the first great seaman, Ulysses. Reading and re-reading his tale teaches us that man could not live without the sea. But it is as certain that without mankind the ocean would never have been celebrated as an extraordinary part of creation; nor would it have been loved, detested, painted and filmed; or become a stage and backdrop for adventures, myths and legends. The sea, then, is the antagonist to man’s protagonist, so to speak.

Of my years in Polynesia I recall one man over and above the ubiquitous marine landscape. He was a primitive Homer named Ruao.

Every now and again I would catch him heading out on the sea in the village’s largest canoe together with the chief fisherman, Putinì. The latter often sat in front of Ruao’s small bungalow, its walls of woven palms held together by poles made out of the local iron tree. I listened to what Ruao had to say so as to avoid mistakes when I negotiated the ocean with the fishermen.

His stories of a world fast disappearing were particularly valuable. The success of my film about the Polynesian islands is in part thanks to him; our conversations have also enriched many pages of the books I have written. In his opinion the ocean had to be accepted, both its good and bad aspects, and you had to try and get to know it, even if in practice this was almost impossible… Such was a ‘primitive’s’ opinion, which applies to us so-called ‘civilized’ people as well.

As such we must continue to love the sea. Not only in its geographic dimension, or for its beauty when seen in certain lights, awe-inspiring still waters and dramatic tempests, but for the peoples who populate it, the ships that plough through it, those who love it, brave it and study it.

It is our duty to find out more about the hard work, risks and excitement endured and experienced by those who deal daily with the oceans, and who are battling to save it. In some cases, as in this one where we can use words and images as a tool, it is also a pleasure.

I have done this for many years, and got to know sea peoples of all kinds. This is merely a glimpse into my own experience in a few images and words.