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November 05, 2015

Denver Film Festival: Sailing a Sinking Sea

sailing a sinking sea.jpg

Olivia Wyatt - 2015
Cargo Collective

It may not have been conscious on her part, but many of the images in Sailing a Sinking Sea made me think of the work of Stan Brakhage. There are the mottled surfaces of old documentary footage, with the unnatural, fading colors. The play of light and color, the bubbles of water, and the more recognizable imagery of underwater vegetation, and rainbow hued schools of fish, can be savored in the abstract.

Best of all, Wyatt allows her subjects, the nomadic Mokens, to speak for themselves. One might argue that the overly arty presentation is a form of editorialization. There is no guide, no off-screen narrator. And maybe what we see is a partial view. What commentary we get is that the Moken, who work as fishermen, and live primarily on or near the west coast of Thailand and parts of the Mergui Archipelago of Myanmar, survived the tsunami of 2005 with less loss due to their historic understanding of nature in the area. The film concludes with the note that there are less than three-thousand Moken. What is not mentioned is that the Moken, with their own distinct language and culture, have been subject to relocation by the Thai and Myanmar governments.

The film is an observation of some of the families and villagers at work and play, discussing their lives, singing folk songs. Life does not seem markedly different from how it was hundreds of years ago, with villagers wearing traditional clothing, and the villagers only known by personal names. Manhood is defined by building your own boat, while women are considered of age when they develop breasts. What concessions there were to modernity came in the form of goggles that some of the fishermen wore underwater, and motors for some of the boats. One of the few interior shots of one of the wooden houses included a glimpse of a small television. That there is a ceremony involving a small boat cast into the water as a gift to the sea made me think of the little ghost houses I saw around Thailand. As one of the men says, you have to be polite to ghosts.

There is also the ecological message expressed here. The Moken depend on the sea for their livelihood, but also note that life itself is dependent on water. The name Moken roughly translates as "Immersed in the sea". And while Sailing a Sinking Sea can be easily appreciated for its often stunning visual qualities, it also serves as an eye-opening introduction for some of us, to a disappearing way of life.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 5, 2015 09:55 AM