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One of a few vanishing-way-of-life docs at Bergen this year, Runar Jarle Wiik‘s No Word for Worry begins with transporting footage — an undersea fisherman with superhuman lung capacity, prowling past sting rays on a gorgeous coral reef in search of tonight’s dinner — only to spend the next hour demonstrating how rare this man’s experience of the coastal waters has become. Following him on a sort of quest that conveniently lets the film demonstrate modernization’s toll here, we travel from the Mergui Archipelago to mainland Thailand to Myanmar in search of others possessing ancestral skills. This narrative conceit frees the material from the kind of hand-wringing concern that might’ve turned some viewers off in a straighter doc; the audience-friendly result should play well at fests and in educational settings.
Introduced by his nickname Hook, that fisherman is one of the Moken people, a tiny ethnic group who until recently lived on the water in boats called kabangs. Over generations of diving, they developed the ability to stay underwater for astonishing lengths of time. (Though the opening scene was shot in multiple takes for the sake of editing, Wiik reports that its duration reflects that of many single dives witnessed during seven years of research.)
Like others of his generation, Hook leaves his forefathers’ lifestyle for a regular job. He goes to Phuket to be an “anchor monkey” — watching after a boat that carries tourists around. But his wages barely support him, and after his grandmother’s death Hook longs for his roots. He wants to build a new kabang; but while his father knows how to do it, post-Tsunami regulations mean that Moken can’t chop down trees in their own back yards. He goes in search of not just a suitable tree but of others who, like his father, remain in tune with traditional folkways.
Wiik follows this trip, occasionally having subjects repeat themselves in order to get reverse camera angles of dialogue; the technique sometimes produces the feel of a semi-scripted work. The filmmaker reports that it wasn’t, but things certainly fall into place here, neatly speaking to the realities faced by Hook’s people: Derided with nicknames like “basement people,” many are citizens of no nation and are therefore easy targets for bullies like Burmese soldiers who steal their boats. Many go to work fishing for other people, who force them to breathe compressed air while diving (which leads to long-term health problems) and to scoop up every salable bit of marine life they see instead of thinking about sustainability.
Climate change is alluded to here, but glancingly, as simply one of many challenges these island dwellers face. The doc’s name may bear an unfortunate resemblance to a Jimmy Buffet album title, but it speaks to Wiik’s understanding of a people whose way of thinking about existential crises seems so different from the way they would be presented by most issue-driven Western documentarians.
Production company: Ten Thousand Images
Director-Screenwriter: Runar Jarle Wiik
Producers: Mette Cheng Munthe Kaas, Christian Lien Jensen
Executive producer: Runar Jarle Wiik
Directors of photography: Henrik Konradsdal, Patrik Safstrom, Runar Jarle Wiik
Editors: Mette Cheng Munthe Kaas, Runar Jarle Wiik
Music: Georg Buljo
No rating, 88 minutes
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