Against the Tides doesn’t quite turn the tide on the disablist discourse

“Being in water gives me freedom,” utters Beth French at the beginning of Against the Tides. For our protagonist, water is both a refuge and a source of empowerment, which is beautifully reflected in filmmaker Stefan Stuckert’s opening shots of a twilit tide lashing against French’s unrelenting strokes. New documentary Against the Tides follows the marathon swimmer’s mission to become the first person to swim the seven most dangerous sea channels (known as The Oceans Seven) in a single year. We see her perilous preparation with the help of Martin, her coach, as she is warned of the risk of hypothermia, jellyfish and sharks. Unperturbed, she vows to “rise to the challenge again and again and again”. A single mother, French explains that her young son, Dylan, is the reason for her pursuit, as she intends to show him that one can fulfil their potential at any stage in life.

Essentially, Against the Tides is a tale of disablism and the pressure put on disabled people to prove their worth within society, with French compelled to demonstrate her value to an extreme extent

The challenge starts in Northern Ireland during the worst time of year for jellyfish. Strong tides and volatile weather threaten to suspend her feat. But French is unwavering in her goal. Among her team of likeable project supporters is Ella Hewton, who shares French’s enthusiasm. Hewton proclaims that there is more to life than a nine-to-five job, settling down and getting married. This is an overarching, if elusive, theme throughout the documentary. By contrast, French’s mother is traditional in her outlook and would prefer her daughter to postpone her ambitions and commit to maternal duties. In refusing to do so, French dismantles the patriarchal expectation to stay at home and look after her child, regardless of whether this suits her preferences. It is disappointing that such themes of traditional gender roles are merely alluded to and lack any in-depth exploration.

One month into the challenge, French is in Los Angeles, where she sets out on a 21-mile plunge into the ocean. Her son Dylan accompanies her and is looked after by the project supporters. We see Dylan climbing trees – a portent, perhaps, that he will be an explorer like his mother. The LA challenge starts at night, which is a deliberate stratagem by French to propel her towards her end goal; she philosophises, “You’ve battled your demons through the night and you’ve made it to the day.” Subsequently, we are treated to mesmerising nocturnal underwater cinematography of French immersed in a mysterious otherworld, a sharp contrast to the greyness of the land. When her speed drops to half a mile an hour, she refuses all assistance. After 16 hours and with three miles to go, French is fatigued and despondent, coughing and wailing while she struggles against the waves. When she completes her endeavour, she seeks solitude, which is indicative of a plaintive side to her character. However, the documentary rejects delving into pathos in favour of yet more shots of oceanic adventure.

Much of the documentary is repetitive, flitting between scenes of French either swimming or preparing to swim. It is only when she gets to Hawaii that her true motivation becomes apparent, lending a more human element to the story. As a child, she experienced recurrent illness before finally being diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (M.E.) after seven years of hospital visits and numerous tests. At 17, she had severe mobility issues and, French recalls, she was unable to even open her eyes. Reflecting on this period in her life, French recounts a meeting with a therapist who said it was her fault that she was in a wheelchair, perpetuating an obviously harmful stereotype. Once underwater, she felt like she had been given wings, as represented through luminescent aquatic scenes, which are also symbolic of the mysticism surrounding M.E. Indeed, M.E. remains one of the most misunderstood chronic illnesses, with some health professionals minimising the condition’s incapacitating symptoms to a devastating degree. In 2018, a 21-year-old woman died of M.E. after doctors dismissed the condition as psychosomatic.

French explains that she does not want Dylan – who has learning disabilities and is also possibly autistic – to be limited by his neurodiversity; she feels that travelling around the world is beneficial to his health. Meanwhile, Dylan complains that his mother spends too much time swimming, protesting that he “disagrees” with her pursuit. These scenes with Dylan are harrowing and difficult to watch; his pleas for his mother to halt the challenge and spend time with him are unheeded. French insists that she is pursuing the Oceans Seven for Dylan. It could be argued that French unwittingly provides a harmful lesson for her son; you’re not enough unless you are remarkable.

Against the Tides follows a longstanding tradition of disability heroisation, which is ultimately more damaging than it is celebratory

Essentially, Against the Tides is a tale of disablism and the pressure put on disabled people to prove their worth within society, with French compelled to demonstrate her value to an extreme extent. One of the documentary’s flaws is that it fails to examine the politics of disability, particularly when coupled with extreme sports. French’s insistence on being “the best” reflects the consequences of the demonisation of disabled people, which has only worsened under a decade of Tory rule. These acts of superhuman strength and bravery evoke the establishment’s promotion of the 2012 Paralympics, in which disabled athletes were bolstered by the very people who sought to take away their most basic of rights. The Tories and right-wing press extolled the virtues of the disabled “superhuman” as justification for a draconian clampdown on disability benefits. But this summed up the hypocrisy of a disablist society; certain disabled people are venerated because this feeds the notion of self-reliance, while others, who may be in the position French was in her teens, are viewed as unworthy. One would surely imagine that living in a country where such rhetoric is rife would have left its mark on French, as a disabled British woman: impacting on her sense of worth and ensuing desire to prove herself through extreme sports. However, this is never once explored.

There is no doubt that Beth French is a remarkable human being, but what appears to be an uplifting tale of the triumph of the human spirit reveals a somewhat pernicious core. That’s not to say that this was intentional on the filmmakers’ part; rather, Against the Tides follows a longstanding tradition of disability heroisation, which is ultimately more damaging than it is celebratory. By trying to overcome her disability, French in turn appears to be neglecting the disability of her son. What’s more, the documentary’s failure to probe these issues – instead opting for prolonged, albeit beautiful, aquatic cinematography – may leave viewers feeling somewhat unsatisfied.

But all is not as it seems, and the documentary has a last-minute twist awaiting the viewer, one that the filmmakers themselves could never have predicted.

Against the Tides premieres at 19:15 on Sunday 15 November on SKY Documentaries.

Images courtesy of ar:pr.
Image description:
1. A close-up of Frenchs face wearing swimming goggles and a swimming cap. A beach appears in the background. She appears stoic and determined.
2. An underwater shot of French swimming towards the surface. Her body is in silhouette. Sun rays filter through the water, creating a stark contrast of yellow and blue.