Chris Fujiwara checked in from Tokyo to see the world premiere of the Dutch film Wavumba.
Jeroen van Velzen’s admirably subtle film starts from a hole, something left open in the filmmaker’s life. As a young child, he grew up in coastal Kenya and was enthralled by shamans’ stories of a magical world. Then his parents tore him out of that world to send him to school in England, "where I learned to start every sentence with ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam.’" This history comes to us quickly, through the filmmaker’s voice, which is neutral, quiet, and intermittent, merely giving information and not seeking to compel emotion. Because of what it has made known about the filmmaker’s childhood history, Wavumba (They Who Smell of Fish) can allude to and rely on a structure based on a search for the past, for identity, for meaning, for the recuperation of the self within a lost (or never fully possessed) logic of reality.
The filmmaker’s viewpoint is, then, an alienated one, but the film, very properly, does not insist on the pathos of this alienation. Instead, everything is weighted toward an existence that is ending: that of an old fisherman, Mashoud, who becomes the hero of the film. If the filmmaker’s problem is that of a boy whose proper initiation to the world has been interrupted (and this is the role of cinema, as Wavumba relays it: to be the performance of this initiation designed to reintroduce the world), Mashoud’s problem is the opposite one, that of an old man who is trying to find the right way out of the world, the right way to take his leave. He intends to catch a big shark — a feat that will make him a hero in his community.
The initial problem — that of the filmmaker in relation to a world that is not properly his — gets displaced and subordinated to another problem, a classical generational drama. Mashoud takes with him on his fishing expeditions a young man, to whom he impatiently imparts his wisdom and whom he relentlessly criticizes and bullies. A discrete dramatic shape forms around the characters, less a distinct formal arrangement or rise-and-fall pattern than a kind of atmosphere. There is real ambivalence in the way the film views their relationship: the filmmaker remains distant and detached, implicitly aligned by age (and by their structural position in the network of the narrative) with the frustrated young fisherman, but willing to be seduced by Mashoud’s bravura. The night time scene of their visit to a small island populated by giant crabs, where Mashoud, brandishing a torch, goes hunting for sea snakes to use as shark bait, is a turning point, an epiphany. Truly, the world is magical, and Mashoud’s knowledge of this magic is our only link to it and our only hope of comprehending and going through it. The scene is Mashoud’s triumph and vindication (in the terms of the film, which, at this moment, are more real than the terms of his society).
The visual quality of the scene is emblematic of the film in its delicacy and strangeness. The narrative, so discreet and dispersed, flows throughout Wavumba as an undercurrent beneath the calm and gentle displacements of images. The director makes it his rule never to explain the obvious, never to impose a narrative logic that over determines the images, never to force the rhythms that emanate from the people on the screen and their environment.
Wavumba (Jeroen van Velzen, Netherlands 2012, 76′)