There is a line in a Hayes Carll song that sticks in my mind: “Too busy telling our stories instead of writing the book.” I was reminded of it while watching Body of Water, a new documentary film by co-directors Scott M Salt and Benjamin Paul following ice swimmer Gilly McArthur. Our stories can define us, but if you can move beyond them they become chapters in a much larger work.
Wild swimming and mental health is big news at the moment. The last few years has seen a surge in interest in cold water swimming, culminating in the current explosion of swimmers exploring the mental health benefits of cold water immersion. There has also been an explosion in short films about wild swimming. Body of Water was initially going to join the ranks of such short films, conveying the haptic and sensory qualities of wild swimming in winter. Thankfully, things did not go to plan: ice refused to appear; filming ran to three months; and two rounds of interviews had to be completed in July thanks to lockdown. The resulting 40-minute documentary is something much deeper: Body of Water stopped trying to show ‘what’, and began asking ‘who?’ and ‘why?’
Gilly grew up in Scotland and has always loved the outdoors. The film follows her on her quest for ice and explores her personal story and how being outside, and now particularly cold water swimming, is essential for her mental health. It is a deep dive into what drives her, and how being outdoors in nature has helped her deal with tragedy and life-threatening injury: “It’s there for everyone to tap into. I like to think about hard times as being like a stitch in a tapestry,” says Gilly. “Instead of turning the whole tapestry black, it is just a black stitch. It doesn’t mean that the rest of the tapestry is going to be black. For me being outside and engaged with nature in a really submersive way allows that tapestry to be all the colours of the rainbow.” Nature can help us move beyond those stories that can define us: do so and they become part of a much bigger story.
Gilly was originally a rock climber who moved to the Lake District so she could climb more, but the infamous Lake District weather forced her off the rocks and into the lakes. “There is a relationship between climbing and swimming. When you are on the edge of the water and you know the longer you wait the harder it is – it is easier just to get in,” says Gilly. “It is the same with climbing. The more you hang on because you are scared of falling the more the anticipation will creep up and consume you.”
There are moments in the film that fellow cold water swimmers will thrill to: the sense of anticipation as Gilly stands on the edge of a frozen tarn; swimming alone in a lake under snow-capped fells; slowly submerging into ice-scattered water. The soundscape of the film mirrors Gilly’s experiences in the water. “My main focus was to create a sound palette that empathised with the feelings of cold water swimming,” says sound designer Oli Kilpatrick. “I wanted to create sounds that replicated the motion of water and the freezing cold surroundings, but I also wanted to portray a warming sensation of achievement, reflection and meditation at the same time.”
It is wonderful to see so many people taking to our waters this winter, and it will be interesting to see how many continue as the temperature drops. Winter swimming can be fun, but it can also be hard – and there is a difference between dipping in a wetsuit and ice swimming in just a swimming costume. “Swimming in the winter teaches you about who you are,” says Gilly. “As it gets closer to zero it becomes something that is far more of a mental thing. Winter swimming in skins makes you braver.” It is a bravery that we could all do with tapping into at the moment.
Body of Water (a Sequence 13 film), sponsored by dryrobe, Swim Feral and Sidetracked magazine, is available to watch online exclusively on Sequence 13’s YouTube channel at 19:30 GMT on December 1 and December 3.