Dutch filmmaker Jeroen van Velzen revisits Wasini, the coral island in Kenya where he spent time in his youth, in his first documentary feature film “Wavumba,” which premiered at the 2012 TriBeCa Film Festival. Magical stories about catching sharks and sea spirits told by an old fisherman Gatete have been dwelling in the sea of his soul. Nostalgia and Curiosity called him back to the country of his childhood where he now meets another old fisherman, Masoud, who reminds him of Gatete. Together with his grandson, Masoud tries to catch a gigantic shark for his last chance and Mr. van Velzen joins them as if the enigmatic spirits of the sea have invited him on a legendary adventure. Mr. van Velzen’s unique vision of the world in which reality and fantasy nest in balance opens our sight beyond the impossible. Life that he examines always embodies fantasy and he expresses his stories as if they are fairy tales.
“I’m a fantastic daydreamer. I learned to shut off, to sit in a classroom and just — Pah! I’m not there anymore, I’m somewhere else”
You went to boarding school in England, so your parents were not around. You must have had loneliness at some level, but what do you think overcame the loneliness?What is the worst fear of mankind? I think the worst fear in the world is to be completely alone. To die alone. I think it’s better to die early and know you’re loved than to die at the end of time alone. When you’re a child, to suddenly feel neglected by your parents, to be put in a different country knowing your parents are eight-thousand kilometers away, literally on the other side of the world, it is mind-baffling. I still have nightmares, still now. Bad dreams, dreaming that I’m still at boarding school. Maybe it is not that I feel alone there, but it has a lot to do with that. So feeling imprisoned and being put there for no reason and not being able to actually be where you want to be. And that’s with your parents, especially when you’re eleven. So I don’t think I ever got over it. It still hurts me.
Could you talk about your experience in boarding school? If you just only look at the clock I can tell you for the whole day every minute of every moment. Everything was done by the clock. Because time is not given to you to allow you to choose yourself what you’re going to do with time, there is no freedom to discover who you are. I think you need to have your own time to make a choice, “Do I want to do this now or do I want to do that now?” No, there is no such thing. You’re told when to eat, what to eat. And of course there are so-called choices, but when every week is the same as the next week, every morning is the same as every other morning, every 10:35 is the same as yesterday’s 10:35, it is just a repetition. It is mind-numbing. That’s why I started to fantasize to escape that. I’m a fantastic daydreamer. I learned to shut off, to sit in a classroom and just — Pah! I’m not there anymore, I’m somewhere else. I would write stories in my mind just to entertain myself. And a lot of these things were from things where I was happy as a child before, so Africa and Portugal. Before that I had everything, amazing surroundings, freedom. And so the contrast was really just too much for me.
If you think about your experience in boarding school, every day must have been different but your mind was stuck so maybe you were not able to think every day was different.Yeah, well, I think you’re right. I wasn’t living in the moment. I was just following a schedule. There were students, I saw them crying because they didn’t want to leave the school when school finished. I wasn’t one of these kind of children but I saw many of them. It baffled me the most of everything. I did have very strong bonds with other boys and girls in my school, because you’re like a family. You wake up together, you go to sleep together, you’re always together. I still know them and love them, we have a lot of communication even though we never see each other. But, yeah, I could not open myself into that world. I was always trying to separate myself from myself. And I think this is also not a good thing, but I just could not accept it. That was the problem. If you’re like that for seven years it’s a long time, especially when you’re young. It goes very slow, time.
“I got completely confused in what I wanted to do as an artist. I did a lot of stuff and nothing stuck. I said, “It’ll come to me later. I want to travel”
How did you end up becoming a filmmaker?I was always very good at drawing, and then I went into painting, from painting into three-dimensional works, so I did a lot of sculpting. Went very much into abstract art. Then, when I went out of boarding school, I was free. And I took a lot of drugs. I took a lot of drugs everyday. I had a girlfriend for the first time — I didn’t have one but I had one after the other, and it was amazing because I’d never had a girlfriend before. I was suddenly discovering who I could be. I would just wander the streets on the skateboard. I was young. I did a lot of drawing and some art stuff and I felt completely free. It must have been the best year of my life. It was pure happiness. But, I got completely confused in what I wanted to do as an artist. I did a lot of stuff and nothing stuck. I said, “It’ll come to me later. I want to travel.”
How old were you?Nineteen. Twenty, actually, I was twenty when I started traveling. I went to India for three months. I did at least a year of traveling around the world, Asia.
Where did you visit in Asia?I traveled all the way through India, Thailand, Malaysia…Indonesia was fantastic…and sailed back with this old New Zealand man who wanted to sail across the sea on this bloody small boat. I mean, it was a yacht but it was really small. And this guy was weird. So I was stuck on the boat for fourteen days sailing to Malaysia with this guy. We got not attacked but we were followed for three hours, and they overtook us — pirates — about a day’s sail before we got to Singapore. There’s loads of pirates there, still even now. I only realized when they didn’t come on the boat and they left, “Shit, this could have been really dangerous.” But anyway, I traveled all the way around Asia for a year. I fell in love with a beautiful Italian girl and I went with her to Spain. And then I went to Amsterdam because I got a stomach virus in India, but I was carrying it the whole time. I went back home to get rid of it and had to sit there for one year because they couldn’t find out what it was. Giardia. It’s not very pleasant. So I decided to do a course, to do something, otherwise I’d be very bored. I saw this thing in the newspaper, “Do you want to be a filmmaker?”
And then what happened?So I was there for a year in this Amsterdam privatized film classes. Bloody basics: simple cameras and editing yourself. And after that I thought, “I am a filmmaker. I’m going to travel to beautiful places, find subjects and make documentaries.” I had a camera and a lot of ideas. I went together with my girlfriend for nine months through India by motorbike. We made three documentaries; we shot them on the way. She didn’t want to be a filmmaker, she wanted to make a clothing line and produce it in India. So we had three films and we produced a clothing line for her in nine months. When we came back to Holland, I edited my films and she started to try to sell the clothing line. But the clothing line flopped. My films also flopped so we both weren’t any good. Then she left me, and I had all these clothes lying there so I started to sell it. I managed to find these buyers and they wanted more so I went back to India for two years: buying, trading and selling goods out of India to Holland and Belgium. But it was stupid, I was dreaming. I got caught up. I was just like, “Whoa, whoa, what am I doing? What did I want to do?” I wanted to do this so I could go to India, make money with the import/export, and when I was in India make films. And I never made a film because I was always working. So I decided, “OK, choose: you make a film or you do this business.” So I stopped doing that and I went to film university in Amsterdam. They accepted me and four years later is two years ago when I started making this film.
Thank you for your decision.I don’t know. There are so many filmmakers, so many people with such great ideas that I’m always wary of did I choose the right thing? It’s just so difficult to make money and to sustain yourself in this business.
Could you talk about how you reached to make “Wavumba”?You know it’s going to be difficult. You think, “Where do I start? Why did I start this?” I wanted to make a film 50 minutes. But there was no funding for 50 minutes, only 70 minutes plus. I was very scared to make 70 minutes plus. I’d never made fifty before. The longest film I made before “Wavumba,” my last film in India, a spiritual film about this Baba who tried to find enlightenment, was 20 minutes. I spent one year to make that film. So now you have one year to make an 80 minute film. The difficulty for me is to visualize scenes as if they all connect, and can the viewer be interested in watching all of them one after the other. And I did not have a clue. I could never see it as a whole. I was very nervous about even being here in the festival, because how do people even interpret this film? Do they understand it or are they bored? There’s nothing worse than when you’re sitting in the cinema before the film starts, and it’s quiet, and I hear everything. I hear people thinking. If there’s two-hundred people inside the cinema, I feel all of them. And when the film ends, I’m completely sweated.
When you were a kid, a fisherman told you about sea spirits. Do you remember a particular story about sea spirits?The most beautiful story I remember as a child was somebody telling me that if you look on the flickering of the water when the sun hits the waves, this light reflecting on the water, the changing form, you can see the spirits of creatures of the sea that had died. They dance on the surface of the water, and when the light hits them you can see them. But just like this — snap! — quickly. Maybe there’s an octopus. And when you see the sparkling on the water and you remember that one because it’s something you see everywhere. Even in Holland when I look in my grandmother’s fish pond when the sun is reflecting, sometimes I think of it.
“And maybe different people see different things in certain scenes. It’s about allowing people to fantasize. I hope with this film that you hope that there is more magic and fantasy in this reality”
One of the things that I strongly noticed was that you captured shadows a lot. Some filmmakers don’t, but in your film some scenes were so dark visually. Is that intentionally? Almost like Diego Velazquez or Francisco de Goya. I think fantasy itself has a very dark side. One side is what I just said about these beautiful lights and spirits dancing on the water, this bright white light; and then the other side is the evil side. There’s always good and evil. In fantasy there was so much darkness that I played with that, and looked for shadows and forms and things that could be other things or would give you just the feeling of something dangerous. Something that might cut you or something that might linger behind in a hole, or under the water in these caves. There is another world. On the dark side of things your imagination is more open to suggestion.
Did you want to make a fantasy film by documentary?Yeah.
Ah, now I understand.I like to play with fiction and fantasy. I know I cannot make a fantasy film in a documentary. Everybody was telling me, “How can you make somebody feel that there is a spirit. If it’s a rock, it’s a rock.” This is difficult as a filmmaker: how do you turn that rock into something that could be something else? This cave could be another world deep under the ground where spirits and dark creatures live. So you use the stories but you also have to give space for the viewer to be able to interpret that. You don’t want to say literally, “Look at this rock, it’s dangerous.” You have to, with sound and with space and different words given somewhere else, that you allow to think these things. And maybe different people see different things in certain scenes. It’s about allowing people to fantasize. I hope with this film that you hope that there is more magic and fantasy in this reality.
Could you give an example of how you combined reality and fantasy?So I used this very realistic old man: everything should be on time and everything should be done right and you should work hard; and then the other side there’s these magical stories talking about an old man who falls deep in the water and goes to the spirit world and gets married to women, and you know it’s not him. The contrast of it, I hope, is maybe even a little bit funny, but then afterwards you see something else. Where your imagination can let go and you also see Masoud walking in the distance and also through this landscape. You start to see him as this character from this other story that he obviously isn’t but you like to see things in different ways.
Masoud and his grandson go to the island where the huge crabs live. Especially in this scene, Masoud holds a torch, searching for sea snakes. That was the most powerful scene in the film for me. He looked like a ancient warrior or something. Could you talk about shooting that scene?We as a crew, we are all connected with this man Masoud, really amazing man, but when he’s there with these leaves, this ball of fire, walking through pitch darkness where there’s coral rocks — and you don’t see it that well because of the light; it’s difficult with the camera to shoot in the pitch darkness with a flame, there’s literally beautiful corals and sea urchins — it’s bloody dangerous even walking there, and when this thing lights up it goes whhaaaah and it burns quite fast, so he’s on the mission. He needs to get many sea snakes, he just rams through the water. And we’re trying to catch up with him. Just watching and being there with him, it really is magical. So we did it seven times. Even though the first time we shot we had enough material for the whole scene, we were like, “No, no, let’s do it again, we want to do it more!” It was delightful to film it, if not more magical being there in reality and watching him because it does feel like you’re in a different time. A fairytale. It’s amazing to see how much willpower he has, it’s incredible.
“There was a story, he said, where he caught a shark that was something like 600 kilos. He could not get it in the boat so he struggled for a long time, then with a rope he bound it to the boat like ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’ That was a story I actually wanted. But he wasn’t in that same mood”
When Masoud talks about catching a huge shark, he talks like a boy. Adults are really big children, I think. How did his energy affect you while you were with him?I think that’s why I chose him. It’s the way he talks. When he talks about these big things he caught he’s like a little child enjoying a sweetie. He really is. There were other stories where the sharks were bigger. There was a story, he said, where he caught a shark that was something like 600 kilos. He could not get it in the boat so he struggled for a long time, then with a rope he bound it to the boat like “The Old Man and the Sea.” That was a story I actually wanted. But he wasn’t in that same mood, and these other times he was in that mood where he was just so enjoying it. That is the essence of what I think the film is about. You also want to have that childhood memory again. Enjoying the memory and reliving it. For him, it is like touching reality and fiction as well. That’s what makes him so special.
Could you close your eyes? Please imagine that you are by the beach in Wasini. What can you hear and what can you smell?… Definitely waves. I think the tide is low. Then you hear people walking on this vast water landscape, where the water is not much higher than your ankles. People are looking for octopus and splashing here and there. You hear chickens and a goat maybe in the distance, some women slapping their clothes on rocks to do the washing. Maybe a mosque calling the prayers in the morning. And lots of birds, maybe a big fish eagle flies over the village. The smell is definitely of seaweed at low tide, there’s a lot of seaweed. And it smells like fish. Actually, the whole village smells a bit of fish. And, uh… yeah it just smells of fish.
“When you look at time, not in the sense of 24 hours, but in the cycle of the moon it’s really, really important. Our whole shooting of the film was based on one wall with the timetables of the low/high tide and the cycle of the moon”
Could you talk about how time flows in Wasini? How does it different from other towns or cities like New York?Time is also something I really like, how the Swahili African people, the concept of time. We say — What time is it now?
11:18.So let’s say it’s eleven o’clock. In Kenya, eleven o’clock would be five o’clock. It would be five hours past sunrise. Everything is set around sunrise and sunset. It’s all about the elements. Time in Wasini is all about the sun rising, the sun setting, the moon rising, the moon setting. And the biggest thing, which everybody on the island knows, is when is high tide and when is low tide. By looking at the sea they know what time it is, or roughly. By looking at the sea coming up and it’s nearly high tide, then they know, “Ok now it’s time, I can get the boat to go fishing at this and this spot.” Or maybe when the tide is about to be very low, “I should start to get my things to walk to my neighbor’s village over there because I can only walk during low tide.” When you look at time, not in the sense of 24 hours, but in the cycle of the moon it’s really, really important. Our whole shooting of the film was based on one wall with the timetables of the low/high tide and the cycle of the moon.
Because you experienced living in different countries, I believe you are culturally very integrated. How do you analyze yourself? What’s living inside of yourself? For example, I’ve been in New York for nine years, and I’m Japanese but I feel like my identity as Japanese is dissolving slowly and becoming something else.And now you feel like a New Yorker?
Well, that’s also different too.You don’t call yourself a New Yorker? Like New York is home?
Not really.I’ve been living now in Amsterdam for eight years and I’m having this problem a lot. Everywhere where I go: who am I? where do I come from? what is my identity? I don’t feel like I belong to somebody who was brought up in a boarding school, but I am. I am that person who was brought up for seven years of my youth being taught how to be a proper English boy. That is who I am. At the same time, I spent four months of the year while at boarding school in Africa being totally free in the wildlife and going fishing with African fisherman and whatever you got. So the contrast was immense. But I also was not African. When I was young I had a lot of trouble trying to find my identity, but I think I found it a little bit now.
It’s not so important to have identity. I think not having identity is more free. I think you’re very right. You need some time to be able to accept that, also. I have accepted now that Amsterdam is a place where I live and I have a lot of friends and I can call it home. I’ve also accepted that I grew up in England but it’s not who I am. I’ve been in Africa and now I’m there and I accept that I’m a white man visiting a third world country and this will never change. I’m always a tourist there. Even my father, he’s living there for twenty-five years, it doesn’t matter; you are always a tourist in some way to them. I eat what they eat, I live in the elements like they live, I go with the sailing boats to islands they would not even dare to do, so I’ve gone across the same dangers as them but still somehow they don’t accept you as being an African.
“I love traveling and I think the next trip we make in life is to die. Then things come together”
What is your most favorite thing to do in a day? and when is your most favorite time of a day? Why?Which country? Because it changes… I have an apartment in Amsterdam but now I’m with a boat going through Africa. But let’s say Amsterdam. I guess sitting out on the roof terrace; I have a roof terrace on the fourth floor. I am a little bit higher than everybody, so I can see the horizon. Here you can’t even see the horizon, but in Amsterdam I can see the horizon. Sitting there you can fantasize about other things, film ideas. I love my fantasy. I give myself some free time everyday to sit there and let my mind fantasize about other worlds or other things I could be doing or films I’m making in my head. Changing reality, I think I enjoy that the most.
What does allow you to be yourself?I don’t think I have an answer. I don’t even know who I am, I guess. Do you know who you are? I think this is something I will know, maybe, when I die. Who I am. I love traveling and I think the next trip we make in life is to die. Then things come together. But here I’m too busy trying to understand what I want and who I am. I still have no idea. That’s also freedom, being able to figure it out.
text by Taiyo Okamoto
Director: Jeroen van Velzen
Writer: Jeroen van Velzen & Sara Kee
Producer: Digna Sinke
Director of Photography: Lennart Verstegen
Primary Cast: Mohammed Masoud Muyongo, Juma Lonya Mwapitu