In this beautiful elegy to the disappearing lifestyle of the Badjau “Sea Gypsies” of the Philippines and Malaysia, Polish film maker Eliza Kubarska follows 13 year-old Sari and his uncle Alexan as they drift in their small wooden boat across coral reefs, in search of fish. They dive with spearguns, using a very rudimentary breathing system that comprises of a small gasoline-run air compressor on their boat, and a simple hose with free-flowing air. Alexan tells his watchful nephew that every time they dive into the water they should say a prayer to the spirit of the sea to ask permission to enter – and, he might have added, another prayer to the old, makeshift compressor not to break down while one of them is deep below the surface.
Under the water the uncle wraps the hose twice around his midriff, sticks the end in his mouth, and swims down to the reef to spear fish for their dinner. Now he is in his element, swimming gracefully over the coral, taking a few fish while his nephew gently steers the boat above with a foot-propelled paddle. Sari sits shivering as a thunder shower comes and goes, the uncle oblivious in the deep. He spends hours underwater, and when he comes up he says nonchalantly that his lungs hurt. They pull into a small deserted island, and leave an offering at a sacred tree to make sure the tree spirit keeps them safe. That night they roast the fish on a fire on the beach of a small island, and Alexan tells a story of a friend of his who - he claims - had gills like a fish and used to hitch rides on turtles underwater, as Sari drifts into untroubled sleep on the soft sand.
But troubles loom for this nomadic maritime life, supported by spirits. The fish on which they subsist are getting rarer – due to commercial overfishing – and many of the Badjau people are settling on the land, putting up crude shacks along the coastlines of Borneo in Malaysia and Indonesia and the islands of the Sulu Sea in the Philippines. For centuries the Badjau had lived a life apart, eating and sleeping on their boats as they followed the fish stocks around the seas of Southeast Asia. Now they are getting drawn into the money economy, but few can read or write or have any formal education, and many live in poverty. They are stateless people, with no papers, and so don’t easily qualify for government help, schooling or medical care. Their home is the sea, but the sea can no longer support them.
Sari asks his uncle to teach him the dangerous art of compression diving. Alexan says Sari’s mother and father would disapprove, but he agrees to show the boy how, warning him that “sometimes you will have blood in your mouth.” The Badjau compression divers will spend hours below the water, risking decompression sickness when they come up. Some deliberately puncture their eardrums to make equalizing the pressure in their ears easier – but with predictably negative effects on their hearing. Sari is torn between following his uncle’s lifestyle and living from the fish he can catch, or getting a job refilling scuba tanks at the nearby tourist diving resort.
The film ends before Sari has decided where he will take his life, but Kubarska makes it clear that the spririts of the sea are in retreat from modern commercial fishing and tourism. Dana Roeber Murray, a marine scientist with Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, said in the Q&A after the film that many people around the world who had survived from subsistence fishing are threatened by similar pressures. There are even significant numbers of people who fish off the piers in Santa Monica Bay – Vietnamese, Chinese, Russian - who rely on their catch to feed their families – even though pollution in the water makes some of the fish unsafe for regular consumption. The spririts of the sea deserve more respect.