Against The Tide


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Against The Tide
"Although this is a melancholic film there is hopefulness in friendship and tradition." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

While some environmental crisis documentaries go for the bigger picture, others take a more intimate perspective by following the impact on one or two subjects and letting the viewer do the maths. Sarvnik Kaur takes the latter approach with her engaging and, often, poetic film that zeroes in on the existential threats facing two members of India’s Koli fishing community. A film that would make a good double-bill with last year’s Sundance favourite All That Breathes, it also shares some basic DNA with the more glossy and mainstream Sundance documentary Deep Rising in its desire to stress our interconnectedness with the environment.

This connection runs deep for the Kolis. The film is peppered with some of their traditions and rituals and shows how they have historically used knowledge passed down the generations to net their catch in shallower waters. New dad Rakesh is still following that tradition, while his friend Ganesh - who returned to India after gaining a degree in Scotland - has embraced bigger ships and more modern methods that take his larger boat into deeper waters. Despite their very different approaches, the two men have a strong friendship and are often seen sharing beer and gossip together in the evenings.

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Kaur takes a fly-on-the-wall approach, the watchful camera capturing the ebb and flow of life for both men. We see Rakesh’s new baby going through traditional ceremonies, and his homelife with his wife and mother, while in an altogether more gentrified part of Mumbai Ganesh lives with his newly pregnant wife in an apartment. Still, the men face similar problems regarding their livelihoods. Rakesh’s catch is dwindling, with plastic rubbish often as prevalent as the fish in his nets. A bigger boat hasn’t helped Ganesh much either, since he faces a challenge from fleets who use illegal LEDs to help attract fish, something he initially tells his wife he “doesn’t want on his karma”.

We head out on the water with both men to see the very different operations they are involved with. Rakesh’s is a family affair and, though he is not without ambition, his approach is much more traditionally focused than Ganesh. Kaur also offers a window into the men’s homelife as debts become an increasing part of Ganesh’s conversation with his wife and Rakesh and his family face the prospect of their newborn having medical problems that may require an expensive operation. Gently Kaur's film explores the tensions in the men's lives, including the difficult conversations they have about whether one man's fishing is affecting the other's.

This film works as well as it does because of the trust the men and their families have in Kaur, letting her be around them with the camera even when things are getting tough or intimate family conversations are being had. She and cinematographer Ashok Meena respect the trust by keeping a distance as difficult conversations play out, adding to the organic feel.

Kaur doesn’t need to offer specific commentary about the way that shifts in socioeconomics are impacting this small community, or to labour issues surrounding healthcare, in order for us to see just some of the myriad challenges both men are up against. The plastic, slippery like fish, in the men’s nets also speaks volumes about the state of our oceans without the need for additional voiceover. Although this is a melancholic film there is hopefulness in friendship and tradition, the question is whether in modern Mumbai, it will still be given the room to express itself or completely fished out.

Reviewed on: 22 Jan 2023
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The threats facing India's Koli fishing community are explored through the story of two friends with very different approaches to their tradition.

Director: Sarvnik Kaur

Year: 2023

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: India

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