Continuing with my London Film Festival adventure with this Bangladeshi debut feature directed and written by Rezwan Shahriar Sumit. Assisted with the Spike Lee Fellowship Award, Sumit was able to make The Salt in Our Waters (its original title is Nonajoler Kabbo), an intricate look into how climate change affects small communities and the lives these communities live. The film follows Rudro (Titas Zia), a sculptor who returns to his father’s fishing village to complete his artwork. Whilst there, he is met with hostility from the townspeople who believe his work depicts idols which is a sin. The village is led by the Chairman (Fazlur Rahman Babu) has the majority of people in his debt and dictates their everyday lives. As a city dweller, Rudro is more relaxed in his religion and more liberal in his lifestyle which creates immediate friction. His willingness to speak out against the Chairman creates a shock in the community.
The film provides topical discussions on various issues such as man vs nature and industry vs art all within the context of an environmental crisis with climate change having a direct negative effect on the village while the city promises more success. While the issues in the film delve deep, Sumit’s approach is minimalist and organic, relying on the beauty of the natural landscape. Primarily shot in the village location, we become familiar with the surroundings meaning that any changes become obvious. The fishing village is based on the shores of the ocean so they are faced with all sorts of weathers. They have to rely on their limited resources to survive but they get by. Rudro’s visit is seen as a deep disturbance to the villagers. The village seems trapped within itself, unreachable by outside society and Rudro coming via the sea is symbolic of the freedom the ocean brings. Not to mention the unfortunate suicide of one of the children who cannot bear the constraints of the community anymore.
Titas Zia gives a wonderful performance as Rudro. His character is onscreen for the majority of the film and a lot of the weight falls on his shoulders. Zia is able to capture Rudro’s desire to try and fit in or at least explain his art. His deep interest in his host family and the children of the household daughter, Tuni and her younger brother, Taher is particularly touching. His creativity inspires the children of the village which angers the men. He tackles the gender stereotyping within the village as Tuni expressing her wish to go fishing but she is not allowed to because of her gender. Rudro expresses this in his new sculpture which causes an outrage as the idea of Tuni posing for an artist equates to sex in the villagers’ eyes. His quest to save her from the restraints evidently makes it worse before a huge storm comes when the two take solace in shelter.
In support there is a wonderful performance by Fazlur Rahman Babu as the Chairman. Controlling the town by having everyone in his debt, the Chairman is the sole decision maker for anything that goes on in the town. His insistence on religion over science contributes to a devastating event in the film’s final act which proves to result in a fight of words between the Chairman and Rudro. At the beginning of the film, Rudro attempts to tip the men who help unload the cargo but is rejected by him and eventually the Chairman, who says no such action is necessary. This could be interpreted as the Chairman wanting to keep the financial control over the men. If Rudro gave them enough money to pay the Chairman’s debt then the latter would cease to have control and the foundation of his power would crumble. He takes it upon himself to educate the children rather than having a teacher in the village. This ensures that they follow his values and under his command. The script allows this corruption to seep through bit by bit. It’s never fully confirmed whether he is actively aware of his actions, but when Rudro confronts him, he does not listen to his reasonings. Babu’s performance is so effective that even when not onscreen, it still feels as though he is watching.
The Salt in Our Waters is a film that explores a variety of important issues by using the fishing village as a microcosm of the world as a whole. Sumit’s method of using Rudro’s outside perspective as the audience’s way into the film was a smart decision because it is so complex. Rudro’s differences are only highlighted when under the pressures of the village’s constricted traditions. Much like the artwork Rudro creates, the film is very raw and authentic in its approach and execution. It’s a film of heart and identity as Rudro tries to make sense of his art and his place in the world, finding somewhere to fit in.
The Salt in Our Waters is showing at the BFI London Film Festival on 13th October.