Dutch director Jan-Willem van Ewijk explains to Melanie Goodfellow how a passion for windsurfing in Morocco was the inspiration for his film Atlantic.

Dutch filmmaker Jan-Willem van Ewijk’s Atlantic follows a Moroccan windsurfing enthusiast who sets off from his fishing village for Europe, some 300 kilometres away across the sea.

The nail-biting tale of self-discovery, which premiered at TIFF earlier this year, has been praised as a “visual tour de force”.

The film was produced by Dutch producer Bero Beyer of Augustus Film, alongside Belgium’s Marion Hansel and Berlin-based Fabian Massah.

In January, the film will kick off the International Film Festival Rotterdam’s new IFFR Live! Series, which will screen five films in European cinemas and on VOD platforms at the same time as they show in the festival.

Prior to that, Atlantic has been playing to enthusiastic audiences in the Arabian Nights section of the Dubai International Film Festival this week, where Screen International caught up with van Ewijk.

Where did you get the idea for the film?

I’m into windsurfing. The place where the film is set, Moulay Bouzertoun, is a small fishing village on the Moroccan coast known for its waves.

I went there in 2002 and immediately fell in love with the place and people and have been going back there again and again ever since. There’s a hard-core of 20 to 30 people who turn up every summer and stay in campers or take rooms with locals.

One year, I went back in the winter and was struck by how completely different the village was from the summer.

The young guys from the village, who enjoyed hanging out with us, and our girlfriends, were left behind when we packed up our cars and camper vans and left at the end of the summer.

I saw there was this discrepancy. It seemed like we brought a lot of freedom to their lives but we didn’t. We came in and changed their lives and dreams but when we left there was the emptiness of having nothing to do and going back to fishing.

Some became very depressed and started using a lot of drugs and I wondered what would happen to them if they just got on their boards and went.

So the locals are into windsurfing too?

We’d leave broken equipment behind which they would fix up. We’d come back a year later and they would have taught themselves how to windsurf.

They became better and better and eventually they became better than us. One of them, Boujmaa Guilloul, who makes a cameo appearance in the film, became very famous. 

Fettah Lamara, who plays the protagonist, hails from the village. Were you planning to cast locals from the start?

We had many, many casting sessions. We ended up drawing a lot of people from the village but we also saw people from nearby Essaouira as well as professional actors.

I really wanted to work with real people. I was told to use professional actors. People were suggesting names like Tahar Rahim but I wanted Fettah from the start. 

It took me a while to convince everyone that Fettah was the one. Some said he wasn’t photogenic, others he wasn’t charismatic, so I had to fight for him. 

The young actress who plays Fettah’s besotted cousin, is also impressive. Was she a professional actress?

Her name is Hassna Souidi. She was amazing, so talented but she’s just been rejected by acting school in Morocco.  She’s poor and doesn’t have connections.

The thing about her is that she’s very quiet and timid in real life so during auditions I didn’t really notice her but when I looked back through the tapes, I was like ‘Who is this girl?’ On the screen she was brilliant. We called her back and she nailed it.

Romanian director Adrian Sitaru, who was also on the set, because I was also in the film, so he would direct the scenes where I was acting, said she was brilliant to work with. Her talent is to really internalise those emotions. 

The shoot was relatively short at 37 days – why did you shoot this way?

We had a month of rehearsals and pre-production and we just didn’t have the money for a longer shoot. The last two weeks were on the sea, so we needed a helicopter, three boats and jet-skis. It was quite a capital-intensive movie. We stretched it to the maximum. 

It was quite gruelling for Fettah. When you’re moving on water it’s fine but if you sit still at sea for a long time, you can get quite seasick. There’s a scene where Fettah throws up, that was for real.

We had the helicopter for one day, for which we crowd-funded – raising $40,000 on Indiegogo. We used the same name crew that worked on Inception and the Bond films. They were brilliant.

The one thing we were dependent on was the wind because we could not change the day of the helicopter, once it was booked. In the morning, there was no wind, so we did all the scenes in the boat and then luckily the wind picked up and Fettah took off. We did all those scenes non-stop. It was beautiful.