Review: Between the Sea and the Land

Published

Credit: Elia Films

Niki Radman
Writer

A glimpse into Africa in Motion 2018

Water surrounds us on all sides, water is ubiquitous. We tend to think of the sea as a big pool of liquid resource to be traversed, used at our leisure and to our advantage. It might not appear to us as a vessel for memory, history, pain.

This year’s edition of the Africa in Motion film festival hosted a screening of three short films at the newly reopened CCA. The programme introduced water and the ocean as a running theme bringing the works together. It presented the deep-sea as a vessel bearing traces of human existence and memory.

Mariam Mekiwi’s short film Before I Forget – original title ‘abl ma ‘ansa – tightly intertwines water and memory in a “science fiction story set in an indistinct intercoastal region”. Its central character Dr Sharaf is a scientist attempting to reunite the “Secret Society of Amphibians”, a group of people who have learned to survive underwater in the face of the earth’s largely unbreathable air. Each of the characters are looking for some recollection that will aid them in finding parts of their identity. Dr Sharaf is searching within himself for the memory of El Captain, the society’s founder, while a young amphibian on a quest for her mother meets two hospitalised women, both of whom have trouble remembering the past. It seems, though, that real answers cannot be found on land but only in the depths of the sea. Before I Forget opens on a vast, flat beach in glaring light; throughout, underwater shots, accompanied by the splashing, bubbling sound of the ocean seem to envelop the viewer wholly. Generally, the sound and images of the ocean in this Egyptian-German production evoke something lonely and stunning, reflective of its sombre narrative. In Before I Forget, the ocean is a presence to such an extent that it arguably becomes a character in the story.

The same is true for Alberta Whittle’s You Can Never Stand In The Same Water Twice, a reflection on the connection between water, identity and trauma that is part visual journey and part song. Whittle’s voice dominates the film, a voice that seems to reverberate from the walls of a big room. Images of the ocean gleaming with sunshine serve as the backdrop for a captivating and disorienting soundscape: Whittle varies the tonal quality and pace of single words, they become powerful chants. Occasionally, messages become more explicit: “The sea is a graveyard, and the slave ship is a coffin”. Whittle, a UK-based artist from Barbados, talks about her ‘creolised’ tongue, which nonetheless retains its power of expression. Like the ocean, though, her body is described as a site of trauma, unable to quite escape the inherited ancestral pain.

With Deep Down Tidal, French-born and Cayenne-based filmmaker Tabita Rezaire has created a trippy video essay on the role of the ocean in “cybercolonialism”. Its loud computer graphics border on the tacky but manage to retain some degree of humour and sophistication. A green-screened actress edited onto a cloud in space talks to her friend on the phone, later she sings along to an Enrique Iglesias song while fake waves play around her feet. Visually, viewers are often submerged somewhere in the ocean but the futuristic noises and signals carry them to the realms of sci-fi space. An electronically distorted voice obliterates a vision of the internet that is free, tolerant and accepting. In its stead, we are presented with a malevolent network of submarine fibre cables, the ultimate goal of which it is to colonise under the guise of technological advancement. Like Alberta Whittle, Rezaire tells us “our water is traumatized”, yet she presents the ocean not only as a gaping wound but as a site where oppressive power originates and culminates. On the first watch, Deep Down Tidal overwhelms with its plethora of buzzwords and its less-than-subtle visual presentation. However, it does offer a great starting point for thinking critically of the internet and its ubiquitous political power.

Between the Sea and the Land featured three female African directors with strong visions. At the heart of their films, there is a sense of water as a conscious and dynamic entity, arguably as a powerful female force. Alberta Whittle and Tabita Rezaire both find historical trauma instilled in the oceans and place the black body at the centre of their narratives, reclaiming the aquatic space. In Mariam Mekiwi’s film especially, the argument hinges on an urgent need for environmental consciousness, represented by the notion of water as a last safe space in an unlivable world.

Not only are we becoming quickly aware of the extent to which we are abusing and polluting our seas. It is also a fact that, in the past, oceans have been literal graveyards for those, whose lives were deemed unworthy. In the present, they continue to harbour the bodies of thousands of people, who felt they had no choice but to forsake their homes in the face of unlivable conditions. And if one thing is to be taken from Between the Sea and the Land and its stimulating selection of films, it is that the water remembers.