When a boat is not just a boat

Faber Navalis, a film by Maurizio Borriello, takes viewers inside a ship’s restoration

Faber Navalis

Image courtesy of Maurizio Borriello
A still from the film’s opening shows Borriello restoring the Norwegian ship “Grytøy.”

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

This film begins with the bangs of a resistant metal workshop door being forcibly opened, just sounds, no image. The juxtaposition between an overhead shot that slowly scans the immense size and exquisitely bowed shape of the ship being restored in contrast to a detailed shot following the sand-colored rivulets that form the grain of the wood is fascinating. The details of tendrils of wood shavings forming, or the focus on the rhythm of the ringing anvil being struck, reveals a different perspective and beauty.

Devoid of narrative or the usual musical score (a film feature so ingrained that one has come to expect it), this film features a unique soundtrack: the hiss of tongs being thrust into water, the buzz of the power tools. By using the authentic sounds of ship building, a pure vision evolves.

The director’s choice to make a quiet, thoughtful film allows your other senses, less associated with film watching, to emerge. You can feel the warmth of the stream of steam (used to make planks pliable), smell the fire from the forge, and taste the salt from the sea air that surrounds you as the workshop door opens at the end of the film. This film is totally experiential, bringing the focus to the craft, art, and labor at hand, from the perspective of a sole human in relation to the sole object on screen—artisan to a weather-worn but elegant ship.

Created by Italian boatbuilder, maritime anthropology researcher, and filmmaker Maurizio Borriello, this documentary has a very important connection to Norway. Faber Navalis, meaning “boat builder” in Latin, documents Borriello’s restoration of a historic Norwegian ship, noted as a national maritime treasure.

His film has been shown at more than 20 international film festivals from Estonia to Taipei, recognized in the best film category at the San Francisco International Ocean Film Festival, New York Craft in Focus Festival, and the International Heritage Film Festival of Portugal, to name a few.

I had the opportunity to interview this interesting jack-of-all-trades.

Victoria Hofmo: Where are you from and what was your childhood like?

Maurizio Borriello: I was born in Napoli (South Italy) and lived my childhood, in both the real and the metaphorical sense, in Portici-Ercolano, a narrow corridor between the lava of the Vesuvius and the water of the Mediterranean. These natural elements have strongly shaped my personality: passionate and liquid at the same time.

I’ve spent many days of my childhood flipping through the pages of my older sister’s geographic atlas of the world dreaming about explorations far away in space and time.

VH: How did your love of the sea and watercrafts begin and evolve?

MB: Living in a little maritime town, a few meters from a harbor full of wooden fishing boats, the sea has been my playground for outdoor adventures and watercrafts always represented travel and exploration. As soon as the spring turned warmer, my mother used to take me and my sister to the beach, I learned swimming and loved diving since a very early age.

When I was a child I was extremely fascinated by the stories my grandfather told me about his journey to East Africa and our family friend’s trip in India. Another important character who strongly impressed my imagination was our neighbor, a sea captain of merchant ships who sailed all around the world.

At the age of 18, I went by myself to Madagascar. I wanted to meet the Vezo, a semi-nomadic coastal people who live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle heavily based on the sea. “Vezo” literally means “the people who fish,” but also has been known to mean ‘to struggle with the sea.” Even though the island of Madagascar is relatively close to the coast of the African mainland, the Vezo speak a dialect of the Malagasy language, which is a branch of the Malayo-Polynesian language group derived from the languages spoken in Indonesia.

In the following years my love of the sea and watercrafts evolved with my university studies in Archaeology. I was especially captivated by the Greek and Phoenician maritime history and by the Egyptian expeditions to the Land of Punt.

VH: You are described as a boatbuilder, filmmaker, and maritime anthropology researcher. The first two terms are well-know, could you explain what a maritime anthropology researcher is and does?

MB: Maritime ethnography is the study of contemporary maritime cultures and their materials, through first hand observation and simply aims to record present-day maritime material culture.

Maritime ethnography enables the study of boat building traditions, relating them to cultural elements of a society. Not only can this kind of study help us to understand more deeply the reasons for technological changes or choices, but it can also show how the story of the boat can mirror history, social change and organization, and beliefs or customs. Because a boat is not only a means of transportation solely dictated by function or environment, its study can provide additional data and a more practical understanding of boat use and production, reflecting the associated culture that influenced its shape, construction, and use.

Maritime ethnography can help to examine each of these variables that are intertwined with culture and can contribute to a holistic understanding of a boat. From a practical perspective, the accurate recording of vessels requires both research and field work. Research has to take into consideration historical documents and iconographic data, as well as the environmental, social, economic, and historical factors that shaped the cultural background in which the boats were built.

VH: I read that you helped restore boats after a tsunami. Can you speak a little about this experience?

MB: In many ways the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami represents the turning point of my life, the event that has catalyzed my transformation into a boatbuilder.

After graduating in the study of Asian and African Languages I moved to Indonesia where I had a teaching assignment at the State University of Jakarta. In those years I carried out a research project in maritime ethnography on living boatbuilding traditions in Southeast Asia collecting data on boat types, construction techniques, local response to the introduction of modern technology, and its social and cultural effects on the maritime communities.

The practical aspects of this fieldwork experience made me realize the limits of my methodology. All those wooden vessels were built “by eye,” guided by an intangible knowledge and I considered my “blindness” a problem of epistemological relevance. I felt I couldn’t really understand the development of the technology and investigate the transmission of knowledge without acquiring practical boatbuilding skills. After the Tsunami much of my time has been spent in boatyards working as a volunteer in Thailand, Indonesia, and South India.

VH: How did you come to restore a Norwegian ship?

MB: My experience with watercrafts in Nordic countries began in Finland where I had the great opportunity to study wooden boatbuilding at Koulutuskeskus Salpaus college. Finland has the world’s best education system and the government is very active in supporting studies in the field of sustainable resources and technology for forest products. The amount of wood in Finnish forests increases every year. The annual growth of forests has for a long time been much greater than annual fellings.

During my three years in Finland I had been offered scholarships for building four different types of wooden boats, traveling to Turkey to learn local techniques, and carrying out my research project in sustainable boatbuilding: a combination of modern woodworking technology and different traditional boatbuilding techniques acquired during my fieldwork in maritime ethnography around the Indian Ocean, Scandinavia, and the Mediterranean. As my final college project, I built a boat developed from a traditional small fishing vessel design used in the Andaman Sea (Southwest Thailand), designed by my colleague the designer and naval architect Pancho Nikander.

With the aim to develop an appropriate and versatile technology, our work attempted to improve traditional boatbuilding methods in order to achieve accurate results in shorter time, using simple tools and minimizing the waste of material. Another of our primary goals in experimenting and combining different techniques was to make the process of construction simple enough for anyone with minimal woodworking experience to build. Believing that the respect of the original hull design can increase local acceptance of a new model, we mainly focused on improving the building process without radically altering the basic design.

In Finland I’ve been mostly involved in the construction of new small watercrafts but I still had much to learn in the field of wooden ship-building and the restoration of historical vessels. So after graduating I moved to Norway where I worked for the three main Ship Preservation Centers and boat museums joining restoration projects of several wooden ships recognized as historical maritime treasures by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage.

VH: Tell me about the ship you restored in your film.

MB: In order to acquire a wider knowledge about different Norwegian shipbuilding techniques I decided to work on several restoration projects, which brought me from the southern latitude of Kristiansand to the deep north in Finnmark. The ship in the film was in Troms county.

The name of the boat is Grytøy. Unfortunately no proper study of the history of the ship has ever been done. Many times I’ve stressed the importance of carrying out a systematic research applying proper historiographical methodologies.

VH: How long did it take to restore it?

MB: After three years, the restoration of the ship is still not completed. I moved from Norway last year.

VH: What was the experience like?

MB: The experience of restoring wooden ships and all the unpredictable events that happen living almost four years in the Arctic North strongly fortified me both physically and mentally. Working outdoors in the dark winter, sometimes at the temperature of -30°F helps me to measure the limits of the human condition and develop new strategies for living in extreme environment. Despite all the adversities, living in the Arctic has surely been one of the most significant existential experiences of my life. I returned home happier, stronger, and overall a better person.

VH: Why did you decide to film your restoration of this particular ship?

MB: In my fieldwork I always use the camera as a research tool. I’ve already made films on other boat builders and craftsmen in Indonesia, India, Thailand, and Turkey, but in Faber Navalis I used the camera not so much as an objective recording device, but as an instrument for expressing my personal aesthetic vision and for trying to transmit the sensory experience of working the wood. Even if at a superficial level it might seem like a video about the restoration of a wooden ship, the actual subject of my film is the state of mind of the shipwright. My film is an experiment in autobiographical ethnography: a combination of aesthetics and ethnography which attempts to bring out an inner dimension that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose.

VH: What surprised you about Norway?

MB: Surely the variety of natural scenery! In the Arctic I was always astonished by the spectacular signs left on the landscape by the glacial-interglacial cycles. Flying on an endless icy expanse in Finnmark, I couldn’t help thinking about the ingenuity to adapt to such an extreme environment of the Sámi and other culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions.

As filmmaker, I was very impressed by the magnificent Nordic light. During the summer, having the sun rolling at the horizon allowed me to shoot with a dramatic natural Caravaggio’s light.

VH: What are your current projects?

MB: I’m currently living in the UK working on the hull building of a 33-meter wooden sailing yacht.

Besides that, I am the founder and artistic director of Handmade Doc Fest, the first international documentary film festival in Italy that pays special tribute to documentary films on crafts and craftsmanship from all around the world. There are a huge number of skilled artisans around the world, carrying their culture and talents that have been passed down for generations.

However, the proliferation of mass production poses significant challenges to the survival of traditional forms of craftsmanship. How can traditional craftsmanship survive in the modern world? The festival aims to become an exhibition platform where audience, filmmakers, and craftspeople from around the world can meet, share, and discuss ideas in a friendly atmosphere and possibly make plans for future collaborations.

VH: Is there anything you’d like to add?

MB: In recent years, I’ve been working on an appropriate and versatile technology that attempts to improve traditional boat building methods to improve the safety of boats used in small-scale fisheries. I believe in the potential key role of the boats to reduce poverty and isolation, improving rural access and mobility through the development of rural water transport. Roads are difficult and expensive to build; conversely to take advantage of the existing waterways is a practical solution with immediate results, especially in fragile ecological environments. Building boats creates jobs and facilitates access to economic opportunities and basic services. In addition, transport on waterways is cost-effective and environmentally sustainable.

You can view his film, running a little over half an hour, on Youtube. Faber Navalis: A film by Maurizio Borriello is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=NtQDbJXh1oY.

This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Victoria Hofmo

Victoria Hofmo was born, raised, and still lives in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, the historical heart of Norwegian New York. She is 3/4 Scandinavian: 1/2 Norwegian and 1/4 Danish/Swedish. Self-employed, she runs an out-of-school-time program that articulates learning through the arts. Hofmo is an advocate for arts and culture, education, and the preservation of the built and natural environment of her hometown, with a love for most things Scandinavian.