A film that’s maybe more about mood and setting than narrative, Wavumba, from Dutch filmmaker Jeroen van Velzen, is a beautiful homage to a place and time – memories of the filmmaker’s childhood, spent in coastal Kenya, steeped in mysticism, and driven by the tale of a single fisherman, Mohammed Masoud Muyongo, a legend of shark fishing, a man who proudly wears his scars as proof of decades spent clashing with sub-aquatic adversaries, and his resigned grandson, as they take to the seas in search of one final mighty capture.
For much of the film, the audience accompanies the septuagenarian Masoud (who’s glory days officially behind him, but intent on defying age) and his brawny grandson (contrasting Masoud’s rather frail frame) for a ride on an old, small flat-bottomed boat, as the pair squabble (grandfather rebuking grandson; grandson stoic and patient) while paddling, hunting for the kind of colossal game that helped cement the old man’s reputation as a big-game fisherman.
Interject Masoud’s various recollections of his glory days – boastful, fantastical tales that both sadden and enthrall – and you’ve got a film that moves along more like a dream, as memories collide with reality, supported by the haunting sound design and intervals of Kenyan narrators sharing fables about spirits of the sea and buried worlds.
The surfaces blur enough that you just might even start to question the reality of the tale that’s unfolding in front of you, as well as Masoud’s lucidity; but he proves his ability eventually, demonstrating surprising dexterity in a somewhat ritualistic, sacred act.
For director Velzen, Masoud (his personal struggles and his relation to this magical place he takes the viewer on a ride through) is like the personification of Velzen’s dreams, unrealized.
Wavumba (translated as “They Who Smell of Fish“) is like a Kenyan version of the Old Man and the Sea story realized on film, with its allures, including its moving hero and captivating images.
“I have these jumbled-up fantasies from when I was a child, and I wanted to re-grasp that sensation and have the viewer feel it… I listened to all these stories and mixed them together with memories I had, and hoped for a romantic story to be unveiled,” Velzen says.
Romantic in the sense that it’s idealistic, dreamy, quixotic; while it’ll likely test the patience of some (your appreciation for the work will depend greatly on your appreciation for Masoud and his stories of glory days past), it’s a boat ride worth taking.
Wavumba is currently touring the film festival circuit. No details yet on where it’ll screen next however.
It won the Best Documentary award at Tribeca.