‘In the Waves’ Finds Peace and Wisdom in the Waves of Cape Breton Island

Jacquelyn Mills’s portrait of her grandmother is at once abstract and intimate.


Joan Alma Mills sits with her husband at a small table in their Nova Scotia home. The exposed wood wall features framed images of fishermen, boats and other scenes of local life. “Eat that,” she says, pointing to the bit of fish that he’s left aside. “It’s just the skin.” This being Cape Breton Island, one imagines they’re locally caught. Joan then tends to her windowsill collection of colored glass bottles, admires a picture of her younger sister Isabel, and does the dishes.

The relaxed pace of this early scene is characteristic of In the Waves, a portrait of Joan by her granddaughter, Jacquelyn Mills. It reminds one of the beautiful short documentaries that Naomi Kawase made of her own grandmother, back in the 1990s. It’s an intimately conceived essay, assembled from the colors and sounds of Joan’s life in this small corner of Canada. Mills, who also shot and edited the film, makes much from the color of the flora and the sound of the sea. There’s a real sense of nature and time; more than simply stylistic flourishes in this part of the world where the changing seasons still hold great influence. Presumably this is why In the Waves fits perfectly into the program of the Camden International Film Festival, where it just received its North American premiere.

But there is also more here than a calmly edited series of Atlantic vignettes. This is a film about death. Isabel passed away shortly before Mills began this project, and her memory rests heavily on Joan’s mind. The thoughts of the surviving sister become voiceover testimony, which guide the film forward through her grief. Pictures of Isabel continue to spark feelings, even as Joan tries to resist the temptation to look.

The most touching moments come from open reflection and honesty. Many years ago, Joan and Isabel were at loggerheads over a man. Joan ended up marrying him, but now she wonders. If she had a chance to live it a second time, she says, she might let Isabel have him. Not out of regret, of course, but simply to see what might have happened.

Inevitably, the mourning for Isabel turns Joan to thoughts of her own death. She’s 80 years old. She knows it won’t be too long. “I hope when I die, I die alone,” she confesses. She has no wish to die in front of her family members, and would rather spare them the burden of witnessing loss. Her frankness is startling, yet Mills is able to tie it into the clarity of her impressionistic, cinematic vision of Cape Breton. Joan’s bare legs, submerged in the water of this picturesque island, become a strong visual motif that connects her bones and years to the landscape around her. This is not a place where one can hide from nature, life or death.

After some breathtaking images of the wide open beach, warmly lit close-ups of Joan’s face and hands, and almost ghostly shots of the house at night, In the Waves comes to a close. The presence of death has not been resolved. Joan’s questions to Isabel about the beyond have not been answered. But there’s a sense of a life well lived and an hour well spent, an intimate transmission of wisdom between filmmaker, subject and all those in the audience who seek solace from mortality in the natural world that birthed it.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.