TIFF Review: 'The Summer of Flying Fish'

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by Carlos Aguilar
September 17, 2013 11:30 AM
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Hidden under the thick menacing fog of the frosty forest that covers the Chilean countryside lays Marcela Said’s first try at narrative filmmaking, The Summer of Flying Fish. The celebrated documentary-filmmaker makes the jump through a story that is partly a coming-of-age tale and simultaneously a subtle political statement about the socioeconomic conflict between the impoverished indigenous people and the affluent sector of the Chilean population who are mainly of European ancestry.

Presumably on her summer vacation, privileged teenager Manena (Francisca Walker) is spending time with her family in the land her father, Francisco (played by Gregory Cohen), owns in the south of Chile. The fragmented narrative structure Said utilizes unfolds slowly though a series of mostly unrelated vignettes that attempt to give insight into the divisive role the young girl plays. Pedro (Carlos Cayuqueo), is a local Mapuche boy, he belongs to the native community who has increasingly taken to more violent action against the greedy landowners who refused to give them access to the lands their ancestors lived in. His friendship with Manena, which can be assumed goes back to when they were young kids, is sort of a reverse Pocahontas’s scenario. She learns of the injustices his father commits against his people and valiantly communicates her discomfort to him only to be dismissed as nonsense.

Although not always focused, or designed to function in a traditional storytelling manner, the atmospheric tension that surrounds the characters’ every move makes for an evocative piece. Casually exposed in several conversations, the deeply rooted sentiments from both parties are presented. Francisco and his friends nonchalantly dish out their feelings about the indigenous people claims about the land and its assets, while her housekeepers, of Mapuche descent, are divided between those who think fighting for their territory is fair and others who see it as an aimless battle against the rich. The inconspicuous way in which the film reveals the conflict at the center of the story might not be instantly appreciated, but the social commentary embedded into Said’s frames is direct and defines a firm position on the subject.

The flying fish the title refers to are those expelled from the nearby lake by Franciso via explosives. The man refers to these carps as a plague that must be eradicated as they interfere with the other farming activities on his land. Throughout the film the ejected fish can be seen being buried under the mud or grasping for air as the amused visiting children watch. Outstandingly, their existence works as a powerful metaphor for the endangered livelihood of the Mapuche community for whom modern Chile seems to have no place. Perhaps the director’s past experience in the non-fiction realm helped her infuse the film with a sense of lyrical realism, one that doesn’t need to be overly dramatic or explanatory. It plays more like a sequence of humanistic sensorial images, unconcerned with outlining every part of the message for easy consumption. It instead paints a picture of a society, which, like many, finds its past as an obstacle for modern expectations of wealth, and it does so delicately.

Like a fish out of water, Manena seems not to comprehend the adult ambitions that harshly shape her environment. On the contrary, she serves as hopeful diplomatic force between her country’s past and her own comfortable status. The Summer of Flying Fish resembles Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux in theme, and to a lesser degree in style. Both films are concerned with the discrepancies between the indigenous economically disadvantage majority and a small group of well-off Westernized state owners. In both cases, the structure is of minimal importance; the message is conveyed by making crucial connections between the tangible perception of the situation and a mystical one that plays into the subconscious.

Said has created an important film not only for her people, but for a world that appears increasingly in a rush to erase old lifestyles in order to give in to a global standardize measure of success. Clearly, the extreme subtly of Said’s film will cause many to deem it vague or disconnected, but in the obscurity of its narrative there are hints to the profoundly emotional implications of the circumstances. Her film is certainly poetic, not widely accessible, but with organic performances and an entrancing cinematography, it is a an experience that lures in the viewers mind long after the fog has dissipated and the fish have died. 

Read Sydney's Interview with Director Marcela Said HERE


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