In 2008, St Anne’s Anglican Church in Limehouse was the venue of a74 hour non-stop read of the entire Bible. It was also the site of a comparatively shorter yet no less ambitious event – the premiere screening of ‘The Rime of the Modern Mariner’.
Written and directed by journalist Mark Donne and featuring a live score by Anthony Rossomundo, it is a documentary ode to the Docklands; its rich and colourful past and its twilight years.
The beginning of the film roll calls many of the Docklands’ rum and curious characters of yore. This is folklore London, the haunting ground of such exquisitely named characters as Orsino the Enchantress, Black-Eyed Susan and the notorious Monkey Suckers.
At one point, ex-Docker Brian denounces the clichéd focus many people have on Jack the Ripper and the Krays and asks why nobody talks about the good honest folk of the East End. In ‘Rime’ he has his wish granted as the ‘last Dockers’ are put centre stage.
The Dockers themselves are given free reign to talk and reminisce about bygone days and this patient approach contributes the purest moments in the film. These men, all at least in their eighties, are the last living vanguard of a sunken Empire and their base, the Stepney Dockers Social Club, a living breathing nucleus of heritage.
In one bittersweet moment Brian jokes that these days one could spend more money on flowers than drink due so many of them passing away.
‘Rime’ is a visual banquet, its long tracking shots and time-lapse photography is reminiscent of films such as ‘Baraka’ or ‘Koyaanisqatsi’. The filmmakers clearly spent a lot of effort combing the area for good angles to frame a shot (the stern statue of Neptune glaring from the corner of a building, the dizzying summit of a ship’s mast).
During the interviews with the Dockers, the camera occasionally spends too much time frantically lurching into and lingering around their faces but this is minor distraction rather than an attempt to oversell their fragility.
This is no mawkish Michael Moore-esque exploitation piece. There is clearly a sense of urgency in the making of this film, a last opportunity to capture the sunset of not just an area of London, but the way of life vanishing with it.
The unfettered access that the Maersk shipping company afforded the team shapes the major part of the film’s second half. Filmed at sea for over two weeks, we are given an audience with the ship’s crew from the cook to the captain.
The sense of melancholy and cabin fever come across as one would expect; we are told of sailors returning home from long trips and not being recognised by their children, the decline of shore leave post 9/11 and the general dilution of the jovial mess room culture.
But ‘Rime’ always manages to dovetail the mournful mood with lighter moments as the crew’s eyes momentarily sparkle like children when describing the sunsets, night sky and penguins that boost the spirits at sea.
The Dockers have often been associated with recurrent strikes and disruptive behaviour but one needs to examine the context of their battle. In the period between 1966-76 during the construction of Canary Wharf and the modernisation of the shipping trade, an estimated 150,000 people lost the only life they had ever known.
‘Rime’ is made with deep respect for its subject matter and makes no attempt to hide its contempt for the negative effects of the gentrification of the area. But ultimately, this is a film about change and the stories that are carried on the flotsam and jetsam of the Thames.
The Docklands was built on a strong code of ethics and loyalty – after the production of the film the Dockers presented Donne with a 140-year old gold leaf commemorative plate.
Almost hidden at the back of St. Anne’s, there is a resplendent black and white photograph of the inside of the church with the inscription ‘taken by the aid of the incandescent light only’. St. Anne’s is a gorgeous baroque church that all should be encouraged to visit on their way down to the docks to catch a faint glimmer of the past.