Serenity Amid Disaster in “The Flying Sailor”

On the morning of December 6, 1917, the citizens of Halifax, Nova Scotia, witnessed the largest and most destructive man-made explosion the world had seen to that day. The S.S. Imo, a Norwegian vessel, was heading out of the Bedford Basin just as the S.S. Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship, was arriving from New York. Both were slated to head to the war in Europe, the Imo with relief supplies for German-occupied Belgium, the Mont-Blanc carrying explosives to France: twenty-three hundred tons of picric acid, two hundred tons of TNT, thirty-five tons of high-octane gasoline, and ten tons of gun cotton.

“The Flying Sailor” opens just as these ships are gliding over the unsuspecting waters of Halifax Harbor to a nautically merry tune. A fish swims down below, minding its own business. On his brisk morning stroll, a middle-aged sailor with center-heavy proportions and four gangly limbs freezes midstep with one foot in the air, arrested by what he’s seeing: the two ships have made contact. At first, they let out a harmless hiss. Just as the sailor lights up a cigarette to go with the spectacle, a blaze erupts between the vessels.

When the real Imo and Mont-Blanc collided, at 8:45 A.M., the friction between their hulls ignited a fire that spread to the highly flammable contents of the French ship. Twenty minutes later, the material detonated in an explosion that killed nearly two thousand people, injured nine thousand others, and decimated everything within a one-and-a-half-mile radius. The impact sent the water rushing out of the harbor, exposing the sea floor and creating a fifty-foot tsunami.

In the early two-thousands, Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, two animators and directors from Alberta, Canada, visited Halifax and toured the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. At some point, they encountered a story—perhaps embellished over time—about an English sailor who’d been launched skyward during the blast. He was “very lucky to not have been clobbered by debris,” Tilby said, and somehow landed safely uphill in one piece. Intrigued by his near-death experience, Forbis and Tilby animated “The Flying Sailor,” a seven-minute film that imagines what it might have been like to live through such a disastrous few moments.

The filmmakers decided that their sailor was the “kind of guy that doesn’t expect to be surprised by anything,” Forbis said, adding, “It was important to us to make it a very internal experience.” Tilby and Forbis met when the two studied film, video, and animation at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, in Vancouver. The duo’s past collaborations have also examined the topics of life and death, and this new film fleshes out, quite literally, what it must have been like to dance on the thin line between being and not.

Tilby says that the heightened state of a near-death experience “is a point that inspires the contemplation of life,” and that helps one reprioritize and “sort out what’s important.” As the sailor spirals through the dark sky with a cloud of smoke advancing behind him, he loses his clothes and curls into himself. The score, written by Luigi Allemano, evokes peace, perhaps even an imminent rebirth. We see flashbacks in the style of old tinted postcards as the sailor soars through blue skies before morphing into a pink blob that floats toward a cosmically bright light.

“This description of losing your physical self and feeling seamless or at one with the universe” has always resonated with Tilby, who imagined that for this sailor hanging on the brink, returning to a human body instead of dying might be “the less desirable option in that moment.” Forbis has decided to “reject the word ‘morbid’ because it suggests that it is just wrong to contemplate death,” which is indicative of “how bad we are at talking about it.” Indeed, the sailor’s demise feels effortless and sublime. Elements of the film are light—a comically shaped man flies nude through the sky—but its purpose is a serious one: reframing death as something to consider without overwhelming fear or dread. The sailor’s story, whether it continues on Earth or in another realm, doesn’t seem to be over. Do the laws of gravity apply in the liminal space he might now occupy? Like the catastrophic fates of the Imo and Mont-Blanc, which led to the loss of thousands of lives and a whole city, “life is full of collisions,” Tilby said, “and they all have impact down the road.”

An earlier version of this piece misattributed a Forbis quote about the sailor’s internal experience to Tilby. This article was also updated to clarify Tilby’s quote about losing one’s physical self.

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