I legitimately fly fished once. It was on a stream flowing through private land in Colorado. It looked good; really good. Long looping casts unfurled like a backwards cursive ‘C’ onto the water. Trout would softly rise to the fly. I’d see a small flash, a small splash, then feel an explosive tug on the rod. Fish on. Throw in some dappled early morning sunlight filtering through the evergreens and that was a pretty picture.
Last weekend the Gold Town Nickelodeon played a documentary that was, superficially at least, about fly fishing. “Low and Clear” documents a fishing trip in British Columbia between old friends who could not possibly be more different outside their shared passion for fly fishing. The movie quickly becomes much more than a fly fishing film.
I don’t know if I trust fly fishing. I don’t know if I could sit through a movie just on fly fishing. Some people catch a lot of fish, while others seem to fly fish only for its aesthetics, trying to capture the “A River Runs Through It” fantasy. Maybe they are the ones who corner you at a party and show off their collection of egg-sucking leaches. (What? That’s never happened to you?) My question: are you in the water to look good, or catch fish?
There is a little bit of this tension in the movie. The hyper one, Alex “Xenie” Hall, was very clearly into catching fish, while his buddy, J.T. Van Zandt, was content to perfect his Spey casting whether he caught anything or not. In fact, JT was a bit snooty about the egg pattern flies Xenie would use. Egg patterns are great; they work! To deny yourself the pleasure of catching fish to overwork a piece of the river with the same technique and fly, on principle, seems more masochistic than honorable. This tended to drive Xenie, and me, crazy.
Perhaps JT was doing the fish a favor by not dragging many in and letting them go. These men were fishing catch and release. Some day, someone ought to make a documentary about catch and release. There is a good nugget of conflict between the fish torture and playing with your food concerns versus the importance allowing fish stocks to recover while encouraging people to get off their duffs and be a participant in nature.
In this film however, fishing became a rather secondary consideration.
In film school, or a screen writing class, or just telling a ripping good yarn, there’s an arc of character; the growth and change of a character over the course of the story. Good characters, be they hero or villain, change.
Character development is a tough thing to force in a documentary. You get what you get. Yet an audience still wants to see change, even if the characters are real people. While Xenie remained a much-needed note of manic comedy, we see layers of his personality revealed over the course of the film. By the end, you get the feeling he’s more centered than first shown, and maybe even more centered than JT. JT, on the other hand, doesn’t change at all. He remains a morose fly fishing purist. He’s a deep thinker and perhaps over-complicates things. He doesn’t seem to learn much, or want to learn much, from his buddy. It’s funny. JT definitely displays the trappings of a more successful life: nice boats, higher-end fishing gear, and large sun-blocking hats. But he’s not happier than Xenie - despite Xenie’s mien of a more modest life as a firewood salesman. In fact, JT at one point describes Xenie as a broken man. I wonder if it’s Xenie he’s really describing.
Getting an audience to contemplate these two men’s yin and yang via a fishing trip is quite an achievement. The film also happens to be technically excellent.
The first 20 or so minutes of the film is a master class in framing shots. Using a shallow depth of focus, the filmmakers bring out the beauty of JT’s home fishing grounds; the reeds and redfish of the Texas coast. Later in the film, the filmmakers use some nifty editing to demonstrate Xenie’s compulsiveness, (like his need to photograph every single, EVERY single, fish he’s caught). It was a much more engaging way to show this important aspect of Xenie rather than having him look into a camera and say, “Yep, every fish. It’s a little weird.”
After the showing, the audience was able to learn more about the making of the film. The Nickelodeon’s manager, Collette Costa, set up a seamless question and answer session over Skype with the director Kahlil Hudson. Hudson grew up in Juneau. Though it was after midnight his time, Hudson was generous with his answers to the audience’s questions. A large contingent of his family attended. Their good natured ribbing of Hudson was as much a highlight of the evening as the film itself. What a great group.
This movie about fly fishing is not really about fly fishing. Though don’t get me wrong. If you love fly fishing you’ll enjoy the close ups of the reels, lines, and beautiful fish. But if you overthink fly fishing like me, “Low and Clear” works more as a window into a complicated and interesting friendship against the backdrop of B.C. wilderness. It’s a pretty picture.
• Clint J. Farr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org