Sounds of the Sea (Sawt al Bahar) is not a documentary for the impatient.
The Sanad-backed project, by Emirati director Nujoom Al Ganem, follows the stories of a handful of elderly men who live their lives at sea. Its pace is so gentle, you almost feel suspended in time, with enough visually- and aurally-soothing imagery — from snails dragging themselves through water, waves crashing against the shore and fisherman diving — to allow for the actual story to percolate.
And the story is a bittersweet one, rarely told. It highlights the dying heritage in Umm Al Qaiwain, from catching and selling fish to performing traditional song and dance.
"I believe the elderly have a nostalgia for the past, while the youth are ignorant to it. The new generation is caught up in its own modernised, multicultural world,” said Nujoom after the film's world premiere on Saturday night at Abu Dhabi Film Festival (ADFF). "Despite the attempts of the older generation to teach them their ways, I believe that generational gap is here to stay.”
For Nujoom, research started three years ago with Saif Al Zebadi, a bona fide legend in Umm Al Qaiwain. He's a pearl diver and a sea singer, who began his legacy at age 15. He was part of a society of men — upwards of 30 members — who lived and breathed folklore. But now, he needs a walking aid to move around ("Don't let me go, I'll fall,” he tells his son at one point, "My feet are broken.”) and has neck problems, preventing him from being at sea.
One last outing
His younger friend, poet and fisherman Sultan Bin Ghafan, wants him to come out to sea one last time to sing the famed love poem, Shallat Al Bur — a metaphor for a beautiful woman being a pearl that was unearthed from the depths of the water. But Al Zebadi's sons think he's too old, and that it is too risky.
Though it was the starting point for Al Ganem's documentary, Al Zebadi's story, and his ability to embody the way folklore is dying, only plays a small part in framing the stories of the handful of men who still live at sea and ache for the olden days, when traditional singing and dancing were truly celebrated.
"I weep for this art form that will become extinct,” one says.
With the youth disinterested, the men hire labourers from India and Bangladesh, some of whom have been working with them for 25 years. Instead of giving them a salary, the bosses give them an equal split of the income — whatever the boss gets, they get. It's an unpredictable business model. With the sea being too hot some days, there are little to no fish to be found. They could get anything between fish worth Dh100 and fish worth Dh20,000. Sometimes, the cages that are lined with bread or algae, which are left for a week or two in water, are stolen by foreigners, meaning no dirhams at all.
Accustomed to these conditions, the men often take it in stride.
"The men were very conservative and closed off at first,” said Nujoom. "We had to spend a lot of time with them to get them to open up... I realised they had a comic side only after we started working with them, and I thought we have to reflect that in the documentary.”
Nujoom's crew was made up of a mixture of nationalities, including an Italian director of photography, who she recruited due to his knowledge of shooting in the water. He created enchanting underwater scenes that engulf the senses. Though there are many passionate young Emiratis in the industry, the director said, they must continue to grow their technical skills and add education to their desire to make films.
In the audience at the premiere was an Umm Al Qaiwain youth, who was thankful to Nujoom and her crew for showing this forgotten side of his emirate. However, he was pained to see some negative aspects in the elderly society, including the treatment of women — in one jarring scene, a man says a woman is not allowed outside, and signals his hand slashing across his throat to show consequences of such a thing. In general, women are sparse in the film.
"The men were conservative to the point where you cannot enter and explore their personal lives,” said Nujoom. "And the woman was absent... It's a sacred area, just for men.”