Best Of Sundance 2023: Against The Tide Conjures Waves Of Sadness

America's largest indie film festival is upon us. Gayle Sequeira keeps track of the films that deserve a spotlight
Best Of Sundance 2023: Against The Tide Conjures Waves Of Sadness

Compelling in its creeping sadness, Sarvnik Kaur’s Against The Tide is a documentary that captures the sheer force of the sea in contrast to the quiet ebb and flow of despair of those who rely on it for their livelihood. Dwindling catch, massive overheads, accumulating loans, global warming — through good friends and fellow fishermen Rakesh and Ganesh, it captures the rock-bottom lows of a business in which the tides are taking too long to turn. The nets go in, they come back weighted with disappointment. 

Rakesh practices the traditional Koli methods of fishing, which involve taking his dinghy out into shallower waters. His young child is ill. He can’t build a toilet because the solid rock that his house has been set up on isn’t conducive to construction. The sea has been offering up fewer and fewer fish. He is, quite literally, caught between a rock and a hard place. Ganesh appears to be the wealthier of the two. His boat is bigger, his technology better. He’s studied in Scotland. But the same problems plague him. He borrows large sums of money, hoping to buy himself just enough time to turn things around. Over 97 minutes, the documentary pits the unending vastness of the sea against just how much it’s backed these two men into a corner. When they talk, it’s like they’re composing an elegy to a profession that’s long been dead. 

Rakesh is furious at Ganesh’s endorsement of LED light-assisted fishing, which attracts more fish but threatens sustainability. Ganesh is unsettled by his opposition; he lashes out with cutting remarks about Rakesh’s finances. These are men who ride out into the choppy sea without a second thought — if they have one, the documentary creates the impression that the pressures of having to provide for their families or follow customs that encourage fishing during bad weather ensure that they keep it to themselves — but find the growing internal churn threatening their friendship somewhat harder to navigate. There's a love between the two, owed to a shared history, but also a steady unease brought on by an uncertain future. Despite the camera's unobtrusiveness, their conversations, and the ones they have with their families, are sometimes so raw and vulnerable, watching them feels like an intrusion.

Through the contrasting figures of these men, Kaur explores a lifestyle that is just as contradictory: the comforts both draw from their families versus the isolation they feel not being able to provide for them, the weight of preserving a legacy against having one to leave behind for your children in the first place. “A Koli has no fear” is a constant refrain, conveying the kind of community upbringing that toughens men who have to brave the sea every day for their job (the first scene is that of a baby being vigorously massaged to the point of tears.) And yet, the strength that they’re supposed to have grown into is only matched by the helplessness they feel. Do they, like Rakesh, trust the wisdom of the ancestors or, like Ganesh, seek out knowledge for themselves? 

The documentary does a fantastic, sobering job of illustrating how both men are in the same boat, so to speak. Both face obstacles that seem insurmountable. In a stunning series of underwater shots, cinematographer Ashok Meena glides along the nets streaking across the cerulean blue water. A jellyfish drifts past. The complete absence of sound provides a soothing cocoon. A moment later, the spell is broken. The camera pans up to reveal rows of plastic bags and biscuit packets littered across the surface. The roar of the boat engine is now deafening. The next shot is an overflowing nullah. Despite its brief moments of optimism, it’s a world of gloom that Against The Tide leaves behind as it recedes.

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