Saturday, September 11, 2010

Secrets From the Sea

It's a part of the world that is cold and quiet. Although the ocean may be teeming with life, sound is not one of its biggest attractions.

We already know that whales, dolphins, and porpoises rely on an internal form of sonar to communicate with each other and locate their prey. There's a good reason why Jacques Cousteau named his 1953 book (and its 1956 film version) The Silent World: A story of undersea discovery and adventure by the first men to swim at record depths with the freedom of fish).

Two new films start on land, but rely on the sea to give up its secrets. One is a gay drama which explores the powerful relationship between the sea and the fishermen in a small Peruvian coastal community. The other is a nature documentary of astonishing beauty.

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Written and directed by Javier Fuentes-Leon, Undertow (Contracorriente) takes place in the small fishing village of Cabo Blanco on the northern coast of Peru. It is a town filled with poor people whose ignorance is partly due to their religious beliefs and their isolation.

A year prior to the film's beginning, an artist named Santiago (Manolo Cardona) arrived in town from Mexico City, seeking inspiration for his paintings. Quickly rejected by the villagers as "the other" because of his lack of faith and his openness about being gay, Santiago made few friends.

Unless, of course, you count Miguel (Cristian Mercado). A handsome young fisherman whose wife, Mariela (Tatiana Astengo) is seven months pregnant, Miguel found an outlet for his bisexuality in Santiago's loving arms. Although Miguel has been warned by his friends about hanging out with Santiago, he has even let the artist paint his nude portrait.

Santiago's painting is intensely erotic, capturing Miguel's allure in graphic detail. The painting would never have been seen by any of the villagers if Santiago had not drowned in a boating accident. Soon, a local gossip had told everyone about the painting and put Miguel  in a bind:
  • On one hand, it's important for Miguel to maintain the perception that he is a macho man to his friends and colleagues. Admitting his affair with Santiago would shatter that image (as well as his marriage to Mariela).
  • On the other hand, the village's culture has a very strong tradition about honoring death. A man who dies must be committed to the sea in a local ritual by the man who was closest to the deceased. Since Miguel was the only man in town who would have anything to do with Santiago, the burden falls on him to locate his lost lover's waterlogged body and give Santiago a proper funeral.
Miguel (Cristian Mercado) and
 Santiago (Manolo Cardona ) in Undertow

It would be easy for Miguel to ignore this responsibility if (a) Santiago's spirit did not keep returning to haunt him, and (b) Santiago's spirit was not so emphatic about wanting to be given a traditional water burial so that the dead man's soul could rest in peace near Miguel. For his own part, Miguel can't stop wondering if it isn't possible to have the best of both possible worlds: being Mariela's husband, their son's father, and enjoying daily visits from the ghost of his ex-lover. As the filmmaker explains:
"Many films have dealt in depth with the issue of discrimination and homophobia, but these are usually represented as external forces, i.e, discrimination by others against a person who is different. Although there is plenty of that to be seen in Undertow, I firmly believe that, most often, our own worst enemy  is not necessarily the intolerance of others but our own internal prejudices.
Having lived outside of Peru I have been able to gain a new perspective on certain aspects of the society in which I grew up and to see how many times our culture (and most of Latin America) distorts the concept of what it means to be a man. Those definitions are very limited and have less to do with honor and authenticity and more to do with masculinity and strength. Undertow was born out of my personal quest to define what it means to be a real man and how that sense of manhood relates with sexual identity.
Santiago (Manolo Cardona) and
Miguel (Cristian Mercado ) in Undertow
There is an alarming gap when it comes to role models for men and American women who are struggling to define their sexual identity. Undertow is intended to tell a passionate and absorbing story that can connect to a wide audience (regardless of their sexual orientation) and help fill that void. For me, it was important to explore the consequences of our dishonesty when we try to hide our true nature because of  wanting to fit into the accepted parameters of the society in which we live.
True love is the best tool to free people from their fears and traps, and make them safe and strong in order to accept who they really are ... first to themselves, and then to others. This is crucial to a healthy and prosperous life because only a free person --  in the fullest sense of the word -- can develop fully.
If one can overcome their own prejudices and accept someone else as is (despite social conventions and the false expectations one creates for himself), then dealing with discrimination by others becomes much easier. Being quiet with ourselves is what gives us the strength to face any obstacle that comes from the outside, while allowing us to act with honesty." 
How viewers react to Undertow may depend on their religious upbringing. As an atheist, I found the religious bigotry of the ignorant villagers appalling. What was far more interesting was the interaction between Miguel and Santiago's mother (who flew down to Peru to claim her son's body). A delicate negotiation takes place in which Miguel slowly convinces the grieving woman to honor her lost son's wishes and let his body remain where he died. In some ways, this exchange is far more poignant than Miguel's problems with his wife and Santiago's ghost.

Undertow (which is Fuentes-Leon's first feature film) benefits greatly from Mauricio Vidal's cinematography and an original score by Selma Mutal Vermeulen. It's also a film which focuses on the roles played by intimacy, affection, and integrity in a gay relationship. Here's the trailer:

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As part of its first NY/SF International Children's Film Festival, the San Francisco Film Society will offer a screening of Turtle -- The Incredible Journey on Sunday morning, September 26 at the Landmark Embarcadero Theatre. I should confess right now that there is no way in hell I can be the slightest bit objective about this film. Here's why:
  • I love nature documentaries.
  • I'm a sucker for underwater film footage.
  • I think the ocean is one of the most fascinating environments to explore.
That said, who am I to turn my nose up at footage of large gatherings of hammerhead sharks and manta rays? How could I possibly ignore a chance to watch basking sharkssperm whales, and humpback whales in their natural environment? Would you pass on a chance to see amazing footage of the aurora borealis? I didn't think so.

A young loggerhead turtle
Directed by Nick Stringer, Turtle -- The Incredible Journey is so beautifully narrated by Miranda Richardson that jellyfish would probably withhold their sting for a chance to hear more of her voice. A documentary that traces the life cycle of loggerhead sea turtles, Stringer's film is as exquisitely entertaining as the BBC's Planet Earth series. As the filmmaker explains:
"I’ve always wanted to tell a story of the sea. It’s the cradle of all life, the great abyss in which all life on Earth began. It has a deep spiritual resonance, a mood and character that is all-powerful. It humbles you. One senses that, ultimately, it controls everything and keeps the planet alive. But it is truly a hidden and inhospitable world -- our own inner space -- and through it run the great secret pathways of ancient nomads and travelers. 
There are so many unknown journeys in the ocean. But the loggerhead’s odyssey around the North Atlantic is one of the few we’re beginning to understand. It is truly epic. It begins from the moment she is born and lasts throughout the next 25 years of her life. It takes her around the entire North Atlantic and ultimately back to the coast where she was born. In many ways the turtle embodies our relationship with the ocean: Once a land dweller, it dared to go back to the ocean and make it home.  The turtle is still something of an alien in the ocean world. It still has to breathe air and inevitably must return to the land to lay eggs. It’s incredibly moving to see a turtle hauling its great weight from the sea at night after decades of traveling at sea.
I wanted to know more about her story, I wanted to immerse the audience in her world and experience her odyssey through her eyes. The experience is everything. My vision was to transport the audience into her world, to meet the other great nomads of the ocean and experience the journey through her eyes.Cinema breathes new life into our understanding of the natural world. It captivates us in a much more emotional and experiential way. It should be no surprise that we see natural history films in the cinema. There’s no better place for the panoramic views and extraordinary wildlife of this beautiful planet."
A mature loggerhead turtle at sea
Stringer's magnificent documentary is enhanced by the gorgeous cinematography of Rory McGuinness and an original musical score by Henning Lohner. The first 10 minutes, as newly-hatched loggerheads struggle to reach the sea, contains as much nail-biting suspense as any action film. Here's the trailer:

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