Walking Under Water won the special jury prize at its world premiere at Hot Docs in Toronto in May. At first glimpse, the film looks like an anthropological study of a threatened native culture, but don’t be fooled. It’s a mythological tale of wonder and water.
The film begins with a long sequence of several minutes: first under water, and next on a small boat with a man and a boy. They don’t speak. The scenery is breathtaking. But we don’t know where we are, we don’t know where we’re going, and we’re forced to accept this and just be present. This is the premise of Walking Under Water.
There is a narrative structure, but the film manages to create a complete world on, and under, the water with a man who dives for fish, a boy who wants to learn, and tales of the gods of the sea. The boy and man rarely speak, but one starts to read their faces and gestures. With their serenity and that of the ocean itself, the sound of waves, wind, and silence, one becomes content with this world. It is full, complete.
For the same reason, when the sea nomads’ world of magic and simplicity is interrupted by a trip to the city and the invasion of busy holiday resorts, it’s incredibly distressing. This happens because your sensory system has been calmed, and you’re not armed with your usual shield against sensory overload. So much is told through the senses. This is the kind of film that works once realized, but not on paper. So how did the team manage to get this film shot and made on the remote Mabul Island near Borneo?
DOX had a talk with the Polish team: director Eliza Kubarska, producer Monika Braid, and cinematographer, Piotr Rosolowski.
How did you finance this kind of film?
Monika Braid: Well, first of all, I always work with co-productions and this film was only possible due to the collaboration with like-minded producers. BBC and Channel 4 said no. Then we went around to pitching forums for about two years. Everyone was intrigued, but it didn’t fit any slots. For Polish TV it wasn’t Polish enough. For BBC it wasn’t narrative enough. But it was through the pitching forums that we met Stefan Kloos of Kloos & Co. Medien, and then we got ARTE on board. We had a very good co-production. The Polish Film Institute supported us and EBH Poland supported the project with equipment. We were ambitious, believed in the project and for the first two years, we invested our own money.
Pjotr Rosolowski: I also think we had a lot of luck. As opposed to most financiers, the Polish Film Institute prefers this kind of cinematic storytelling. So they supported us with 70.000 euros.
Eliza Kubarska: It also took two years to find out how to tell the story. I first went to Mabul Island in 2010, where I worked with a guide and translator, who died very suddenly. It was very traumatic and it was impossible for me to carry on with the characters we had worked with together. So when I went back in 2012 with Pjotr, I found Alexan and his nephew Sari.
The scenes of the film are very concise, and the sound is always impeccable. How much of the film was a construction?
Eliza Kubarska: I knew Alexan and Sari very well. They belong to the Badjao people, sea nomads, or sea gypsies. They live in the Philippines, Borneo and Malaysia. Many of them escaped from the Philippines. They move all the time, and they have no national identity.
Anyway, I knew their stories, and their belief system. I also knew where the magical places were. The most significant construction is the end of the film. The first thing I discovered when I went to the area was Bajawa and the resorts there. It was very close to modern civilization, and my original idea was to show this world overtaken by tourist resorts.
How did you manage such pure sound, the incredible underwater shots and perfect settings?
Pjotr Rosolowski: The sound designer put a lot of micro-ports in the small boat, and I had a very good camera mic, and then we had a bigger boat next to theirs with equipment. And the sea is quiet, so it’s a good space to record good sound. For the underwater shots we had an Austrian camerawomen, Lisa Strohmayer, who specializes in this. We had three full shooting days with our underwater cinematographer. Most of the time, we were filming above water. There were very few times when we did parallel shootings both below and above the water.
How did you integrate the legends of the underwater gods into the film?
Eliza Kubarska: I knew the water nomads, also known as the Badjao People, had certain legends and beliefs. But it was hard to get Alexan to tell the best stories of the legends. I asked him to tell me about his ancestry but he didn’t understand what I meant. Then I told him the story of the little mermaid. And then he understood. He told me, “No, it wasn’t like that. We came from the watermen.” And his nephew Sari heard this story for the first time.
How did you create a space that feels so unreal, so magical?
Eliza Kubarska: First of all there is the light. Sometimes the sky is dark and the sea is white and that’s magical in and of itself.
Pjotr Rosolowski: There was always the fear of whether there would be enough material for a feature. Is it too boring? I mean nothing is happening. So we were searching for another layer of the relationship between Alexan and Sari for the story. Before the shooting of the film I watched Flaherty’s Nanook of the North, his rendition of the relationship between people and nature. It inspired me to do it naturally, with long shots. The scene in the beginning, where nothing happens – Alexan gives his goggles to the boy, and it’s really enough.
Eliza Kubarska: As for the sound, our sound designer and sound recordist were the same person. We do what we can with the images and the sound to help the audience to believe in the underwater kingdom and the spirits.
Pjotr Rosolowski: After the premiere here at Hot Docs, someone came up to us, also a sound designer, and asked if we had a sound recordist under water, which would be very expensive. We didn’t. Our sound designer had to use his imagination and create the sound design along with the story.
Eliza Kubarska: I’ve seen a lot of beautiful places, but there was something very strong about this place and about these people.
The film ends with information on the Badjao people and their social and legal status. It’s far from the world of wonder the film creates. Why did you end with this piece of information?
Eliza Kubarska: I have a small mission. Most people will understand from the film that this is the end of the life and ancient culture of the sea nomads. I wanted to be sure that everyone understands that this is the end of this world.
Monika Braid: No one protects these people because they don’t have any civil rights. They don’t belong to any nation. Therefore, they don’t have any citizenship or basic rights. Some of their areas have been burnt down to make room for resorts.
Eliza: I think making people aware of these issues is part of making documentary.