2020 BFI London Film Festival Review – The Salt In Our Waters

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The Salt In Our Waters, 2020.

Directed by Rezwan Shahriar Sumit.
Starring Titas Zia, Tasnova Tamanna, Fazlur Rahman Babu and Ashok Bepari.

SYNOPSIS:

When a sculptor visits a remote fishing village in Bangladesh, he finds himself beloved by some locals and treated as a dangerous invader by others.

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Multiple films at this year’s LFF focus on developing countries as they hit a point of tension and friction between globalisation and tradition. Kenyan documentary I Am Samuel was a notable example, bringing together modern attitudes about sexuality with regressive, discriminatory laws. On the fiction front, Bangladesh-set drama The Salt In Our Waters tells a story of a country – and specifically a community – in a state of flux, as the unavoidable effects of man-made climate change throw a spanner into the natural order of things.

The avatar of modernity in this story is sculptor Rudro (Titas Zia), who arrives in a remote fishing village with some of his works, which immediately provoke paranoia amid locals who believe them to be forbidden idols. The fishermen take their advice, both practical and spiritual, from the fiercely traditional Chairman (Fazlur Rahman Babu). He immediately dislikes Rudro, especially when the local kids begin to shun his lessons in order to learn to sculpt. Rudro also begins to bond with fisherman’s daughter Tuni (Tasnova Tamanna).

To begin with, The Salt In Our Waters seems set to be a fairly straightforward take on the ways these entrenched traditions resist the rising tide of hegemony. Rudro is an artist entering a world where there’s no room for such creativity. When these guys aren’t out in their boats, they’re weaving nets, and as Rudro’s new friend Bashar (Ashok Bepari) states: “a bad fishing day means someone loses a meal”. But this story goes beyond old vs. new, with the side effects of the developed world reverberating right into the heart of their society.

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Writer-director Rezwan Shahriar Sumit isn’t necessarily interested in weighty, didactic arguments, instead imbuing the narrative with the spectre of climate change. The locals might blame their increasingly poor fish hauls on Rudro and his “unholy objects”, but he knows better. “Nature’s routine is changing,” he explains. Suddenly, the Chairman’s grasp of power is being torn from him in a way that he can’t fend off. His opponent is not a lowly sculptor or a particularly vocal fisherman. He’s a strong-willed and formidable man, but not strong enough to resist the very force of the waters surrounding his home.

Sumit’s ensemble is strong across the board, with Zia’s performance conveying the discomfort of a town mouse dealing with an entirely alien world. The true standout, though, is Tamanna as the headstrong Tuni. She knows how women are perceived and expected to behave in the village and is willing to play her part in order to keep the peace, while being unafraid to speak up when the time is right. Her quiet rebellion of spending time with Rudro and her little brother in an abandoned cargo ship is a euphoric moment, in which her personality is allowed to glow, sparkle and establish itself.

Sparkle is very much the order of the day in The Salt In Our Waters, which is a movie of exceptional vibrancy. DP Chananun Chotrungroj lenses proceedings with an almost preternatural glow, as if this is a place hitherto untouched by the ravages of the modern world. Colours pop with vivid energy, giving way to eerie darkness when the third act sees a storm passing over this kaleidoscopic environment, potentially changing it for good.

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This is a layered, compelling drama that uses the very real issues affecting the entire world to shed light on communities which are totally unaware of what damage is being caused elsewhere. Crucially, they’re also unable to do anything about it. The Salt In Our Waters is neither a critique of globalisation or a cheap shot at regressive fundamentalism. It’s a nuanced depiction of people being forced to toss minor differences aside in favour of the bigger, unavoidable issues – a lesson the West would do well to learn.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★

Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.

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