A Portrait of the Director as Middle-Aged Synchronized Swimmer

January 4th, 2011

Dylan Williams, the director and one of the Swim Gents in the film Men Who Swim, joined Independent Lens to discuss how directing and appearing in his own documentary sometimes meant that life imitated art, and vice versa.

Men Who Swim airs tonight at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What made you start filming the Stockholm Arts Gents?

As soon as I became a member of the team I knew there was a film to be made — I mean who wouldn’t? However, it took a number of years to actually generate some interest in the project, which I believe in retrospect was a good thing since it gave me more time to settle in to the team.

I refused to accept the many rejections from funders who believed it to be too frivolous a subject for a documentary, and I just continued to film. The team merely laughed at my constant filming and became very relaxed in front of the ever-present camera. I started by filming the training sessions and then our regular parties. When I realized that we would all be turning 40 around the same time, I just knew that I had to make the film. I decided to really come up with a strategy and start production — single-handedly if need be. Fortunately the hook of the championships in Milan arrived and helped me get the amazing support that helped make the film a reality.

The characters on the team were also a huge motivation. With a good character one can rarely go wrong, and in this case I could have chosen almost any of the team to feature as characters, although Rickard was a clear choice because he wore his heart on his sleeve and put in so much energy into the team.

What do you think the film is about?

Apart from being a sport documentary, I guess it’s a film about change and how we come to terms with it. Personally, those changes involved moving to another country and all the related adjustments, becoming a father, and last but not least, becoming middle-aged.

At the beginning of the Men Who Swim, Rickard beautifully sums up a state of mind that lies at the core of the film. He says he feels that in middle age life has slowed to the practicalities. Deep within us we still have our 25-year-old selves or even our 15-year-old selves, who still seek change and action, but outwardly we are responsible middle-aged people with duties to fulfill and routines to follow. While we are blessed to be living in a part of the world that allows us to live in luxury, there is nonetheless a small part of us — or at least of me — that feels a bit sorry that youth has passed by and that life has become a long list of things to do. Turning 40 is a symbolic milestone, which often makes one realize that life really is passing one by, and a time to wonder whether it is too late to change. I am loathe to use the expression mid-life crisis because it is altogether a more low-level variant.

Thereafter the film is a reflection on this state of mind and a slow dawning that life really isn’t so bad after all, and that the new stage is not worse, just different. Personally, it was a journey to start looking at life from another perspective and to be grateful for the things that I have in my life rather than focusing on all the things that I haven’t done or don’t have anymore.

It’s also a comedy about men — how they hide themselves behind superficialities like graphs and charts. It didn’t matter how silly synchronized swimming was; there was an enjoyment of ourselves as a company of men, smoking cigarettes and wearing suits that gave us a release from our normal lives.

What’s it like being both the protagonist and director of the film?

It’s very strange to be the protagonist and the director; it seemed to build in me a double identity. I was always wondering whether I should film myself, and thinking weird thoughts such as, “Maybe if my wife Anna became pregnant it could make for a good ending?” Suddenly my whole life was an opportunity for a scene. After I was sacked from work as a care assistant, the project had no financial support at all, so it had dire circumstances for my family in the short term. Simultaneously, I was delighted that I’d managed to set up the camera and record the conversation as I lost the job.

But however much I tried to construct things, the best scenes were the most spontaneous moments. I was sitting in our small ateljé when Anna called me and said she had bad news. I had no idea what to expect. Fortunately Erik (our producer and the director of photography) shouted at me to hang up and call her back, which I did five minutes later. The subsequent conversation about the need for an operation on the cat to extract a rubber monster from its stomach at a cost of 14,000 kroner was great. Working closely with Erik has been the lifeline. Without him I would have found it very difficult to have any space to myself.

How did making the film affect your relationship with the team?

It was more problematic than one can imagine for such a feel-good film — although everyone was very relaxed when we were filming, it was when I began to edit the film that they all started to get nervous. Of course I had filmed about 80 hours of material in all manner of situations, and I had interviews recorded which they preferred not be shown. I could easily have made a film that was much edgier in tone, but I really didn’t have the heart to start ripping into people and their relationships and use my deeper knowledge of them to their disadvantage. My relationship with these people is way too important for me to betray that trust.

What was the biggest challenge for you as a director making the film?

I have never made a film about a team before, so it was a real learning curve for how to develop identities for differing members of a group so that the audience has a sense of them without giving any one too much attention and taking the focus away from the central characters. It was a really difficult balancing act.

What do the team think about seeing themselves on camera?

I think they were surprised to see how good it looked — thanks Erik! For years they’ve just been teasing me about my failed film career and so when I eventually made the film they were really surprised. They really like it and have laughed at a lot of the situations. Memories that would otherwise have dimmed with time, now exists on a DVD on the shelf.

What do you hope the audience will take away from seeing the film?

Hopefully I have conveyed the importance of appreciating the witnesses of one’s life. These are the people who surround you in your everyday life and share the ups and downs that can’t avoid. I try to appreciate them in as many different ways as I can.

What’s next for the team and for you?

The team, as ever, has lots of projects in the pipeline. Of course, the main priority is preparing a whole new program for the next world championships that will take place in Amsterdam next year. The arguments are more intense than ever now that we feel that we really have something to live up to. Perhaps we will have perfected the the flying lift by then.

We perform quite regularly on the synchronized swimming circuit in Sweden, and we recently swam to the accompaniment of a 40-piece orchestra. We dream of one day performing in the Mermaid Parade Celebrations in Coney Island, New York.

I am personally developing a fun project back in Wales entitled The Laughing Welshman. In the short term I am also making a children’s series for 3-to-5-year-olds, which is a real challenge!