80 min., dir. by Jeroen Van Velzen, with Mohammed Masoud Muyongo and Juma Lonya Mwapitu
Every piece of folklore I’m familiar with is older than my living family. The things I’m familiar with — and I would guess many Americans are familiar with — are ancient tales passed down from before our ancestors were settled here. Around the world, however, mystical legends are still alive. Wavumba (“They Who Smell of Fish”) explores an area of the Kenyan Coast, where the last of the legendary shark fishermen still hunts.
Dutch filmmaker Jeroen van Velzen spent his young childhood in this coastal reef where shamans spoke of fish as spirit guides, and the local fishermen caught sharks all on their own, wrestling the beasts into their boats on a hand-pulled line. Jeroen’s parents wanted him to grow up in a more modern atmosphere and shipped him off to a proper boarding school. However, he never was able to get those stories out of his head.
Returning to his childhood village, Jeroen follows Masoud, the last of the fabled shark fishermen. Masoud and his grandson spend most of their days on foot in shallow waters, snaring eels and octopi. With the rainy season coming, and Masoud’s age finally taking its toll, they figure the time is right to catch one more shark.
It’s rare that a moviegoer gets a real glimpse of a modern world that spiritually belongs in the past. I’m not saying that these people should open their minds and accept a reasonable form of thinking, but it seems strange that people do still put so much faith in a folk tale. Yet, when you see this world through the glorious cinematography of Wavumba, it all comes to life. Colors and textures appear more realistic than life itself, even as Masoud and his grandson bicker over how to catch their prey. Never have I seen images as gorgeous on a screen as those of Wavumba.
Wavumba hits a wall when it comes to its see-saw storytelling. As the film starts, it comes off more as a rebellious cry against the death of dreaming as Jeroen’s parents feed him reality as opposed to fantasy. All of that washes away as things focus more on catching the shark. The wonder and pure mesmerizing spirituality never leave, but the story as it’s laid out feels unrealized. It doesn’t matter if they catch the shark or not, but as the film pushes the issue further and further — that seems to become the point.
Rarely do I ever recommend seeing a film for its aesthetics only (and Wavumba has more to offer than that), but the pure beauty and irresistible essence of this film are a divine gift for the senses.