Film Still from The Water Rats © Jillian Edelstein
Jillian Edelstein – The Water Rats
Screening 8th March 2023, 17:00 – 18:30 GMT
In collaboration with Gloucester Guildhall, we’re delighted to announce the public premiere of Jillian Edelstein‘s award-winning short documentary film The Water Rats. A special thanks to Gloucester Guildhall for the use of their lovely cinema.
Shot during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, this film chronicles the lives of a group of wild swimmers, of different ages, backgrounds and ethnicities, as they forge a lasting bond while swimming in London’s wild cold waters, escaping each day as conspirators in the untamed parts of an urban jungle.
Tickets are free, but booking on Eventbrite (button below) is essential.
Doors open at 16.45, for a 17.00 start. The screening will be followed by a Q&A with Jillian. The Guildhall is a three minute walk from Dorothy’s Exhibition.
Review by Shyama Laxman
The Water Rats is a group of Londoners, of different age groups, backgrounds and ethnicities, who “found one another while swimming clandestinely in wild waters” during the 2020 lockdown.
“Lockdown happened and all the projects that I had been working on were kind of frozen. All the work seized. I … ground to a halt like a lot of people did” says Jillian who was invited by Carla, one of the swimmers, to join the group. “One morning in the dead of winter, I found myself sneaking over fences, and doing anything to get my fix”.
It was during one such swim that Jillian photographed Jack, a fellow swimmer, and posted it on Instagram. The aesthetic image of Jack in the nude, surrounded by trees and water, garnered positive response from people, which prompted Jillian to continue taking photographs during the swimming sessions.
The Water Rats comprises interviews, Jillian’s stills and footage shared by the swimmers, offering a candid account of how a group of strangers bonded over a common passion for wild water swimming, and forged lasting friendships. The viewer is not made to forget that these people are essentially breaking rules — there’s footage of an encounter with the police, interspersed with the snippet of a public announcement made by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson in March 2020, advising everyone to stay indoors and not meet in groups, as well as accounts by the swimmers of being fined and summoned to court. Ironically, one of the members of the group is a semi-retired GP, representing the one sector that bore the brunt of the pandemic the most.
It is for the viewer to decide their moral positioning vis-à-vis The Water Rats. But if for a brief moment one were to forget the context of the pandemic, then what you are left with is a compassionate documentation of human relationships and our bond with nature. This especially comes across when Jillian recounts an episode where the swimmers encounter a family of swans that had lost one of their signets, and decide to make an image as an homage to the dead signet. The result is an arresting photograph of the female swimmers lying on a bed of dried leaves, with the baby swan’s feathers strewn around.
As a woman, what particularly stood out for me was the ease with which the female swimmers owned their bodies and the space. Jillian has shot them in the nude either as lone figures or in the presence of male swimmers. But the gaze, whether it’s Jillian’s camera’s or the male members’ is not sexualised. Away from the chaos of the world and amidst nature, the female body has been removed from the confines of being a sexual object, and depicted as something that’s only meant to give itself pleasure. This freeing of the body was refreshing and empowering to watch.