Peter Hutton’s Sea Stories

Date: 11 November 2010 | Season: Films of the Sea, Writings


Published on the occasion of “Films of the Sea” at Fondazione Morra, Naples, 11—12 November 2010.

Filmmaker Peter Hutton recounts an early experience as a merchant seaman, and its sustained influence on his practice, as told to Mark Webber on 25 November 2007.

I grew up just outside Detroit and there was series of travelogues shown regularly at the Detroit Art Institute. At that time it was somewhat common for people to make 16mm films about their travels to Europe or to South America, or even to State Parks in America, and they would put together these little films. Of course, when I was young I didn’t think that I would have any relationship to film but these were some of the first more personal film experiences I had. It’s kind of interesting because essentially what I’ve been doing are sorts of travelogues as well, records of my own wandering around the world. My father had been a great traveller as a young man. He also worked as a merchant seaman for a couple of years, not as long as I did, but he got in touch with a certain degree of wanderlust.

Initially I went to sea working on the Great Lakes of the USA. I had these amazing dreams of going to Shanghai and Alexandria and exotic ports around the world, but there I was in the Great Lakes going to Cleveland and Toledo and Ashtabula and these funky mid-western coal towns. I worked there for about four months, saved up some money and then moved to Honolulu. I knew Honolulu was a great port to get a ship, particularly for going to the Far East.

I spent three or four years in Hawaii during the early 1960s, shipping out and also taking classes at the University of Hawaii, which was also very important to me as an artist. Concurrent with my art school education was being exposed to the beauty and the wonder of being at sea. The first and most profound trip I took was from Hawaii to India. Within two weeks of moving to Honolulu I boarded a ship headed for Calcutta – I was just 19 years old and I was never quite the same after that trip; it was the one that really turned my head around in some bigger way.

I actually spent a month there because the ship was damaged and we had to repair it so we just stayed in port. They had to reconfigure the whole propeller because it had been bent. Most the crew moved into fleabag hotels in town, and I remember hiring a young Indian guy to do my work on the ship. Technically, I still had to report to the ship every day and do the midnight to 4 a.m. watch. I hired some Indian guy, as all the crew did, paid him probably a one hundredth of what I was getting paid, and he would do my job while I would wander around Calcutta. That in itself was a life-changing event for me. The most intense visual experience I had during that time was when the company decided to paint the ship while it was being repaired.

This is a very Conradian kind of story of my first ship in the Pacific. The ship had left Tacoma, Washington, and made it as far as Guam in the Pacific when one of the boilers blew up so they towed the ship to Honolulu. The entire crew disembarked and they were repairing the boiler. That’s when I was hired to go on the ship, it was a kind of a wounded beast. I remember walking into the Union Hall for my first encounter with the union people, and the guy said, “Hey kid, you want to go Calcutta?” And I just thought, “Oh my god, this is what I’ve been dreaming about!” So I get down to the ship and I realise it’s a very old ship that has this cargo of wheat all battened down in the holds. I was on board for maybe two weeks in port before we set sail because they couldn’t get a crew together; they were having a hard time getting enough people to man the ship.

Finally when we set sail for India, I realised that it was a pretty dysfunctional crew – a lot of druggies, a lot of alcoholics – it was the most colourful, motley group of characters you could imagine. This made the trip all the more interesting for me, but essentially by the time we got to Calcutta and opened the hatches, the wheat had rotted inside the holds. It was a gift from the US Government to the Indian Government, and it was this supremely decayed cargo of wheat. It was rancid. I remember being amazed by how stinky Calcutta was to begin with; there was this fetid atmosphere in an area called Khidirpur on the waterfront. It was like we were sailing into the asshole of the world, the most violent odour I had ever encountered. Then when they popped open the ship it was even worse: the wheat.

Somehow every kernel of that wheat had to be taken off the ship, and essentially something like three of four hundred men came on board. They would go down into the holds and fill gunny sacks with the wheat, sew them up and then carry them off on their backs. It was an amazing procession, like an ant colony of humans sort of overtaking the ship to unload the cargo. Concurrent with that were several hundred men with little hammers, hanging over the sides of the ship on ropes, chipping the paint off. They were also painting the engine room, so the ship was just inundated with humanity. The impression of seeing that has stayed with me for my whole life; it was the most amazing symphony of humanity and atmosphere. This was an image that I’ll never forget, and I think that memory somewhat foreshadows At Sea, the more recent film about ships. That whole sequence of the film which is shot in Bangladesh, these little guys working on these big ships, is in some way trying to reference or recapture that first experience of being in Calcutta.

These extracts are taken from an interview conducted by Mark Webber for a forthcoming oral history of avant-garde film. Initial research for the project was funded by the British Academy.