'Fish Tail' ('Rabo de Peixe'): Berlin Review

Rabo de Peixe
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
The ups and downs of fishing in the Azores.

After their autobiographical masterpiece 'What Now? Remind Me', Joaquim Pinto and Nuno Leonel return with this directors' cut of their Azorean fishing documentary shot between 1999-2002.

After what can only be described as his magnum opus, the epic yet extremely intimate autobiographical documentary What Now? Remind Me, Portuguese filmmaker Joaquim Pinto, here working in tandem with his husband, Nuno Leonel, sketches the many ups and downs of an Azorean fishing community living in the titular village in Fish Tail (Rabo de Peixe).

Rather than an original work, this is a reworked and much more personal edit of material shot between 1998 and 2002 and subsequently butchered by the fishing associations and Portuguese TV channel that commissioned it, as they wanted a portrait of the disappearing way of life of those practicing small-scale fishing in the Azorean waters that was scrubbed clean of any negativity. On the strength of his previous film, this "new" work will again travel the festival circuit extensively, though its shelf life and importance in Pinto’s filmography will certainly be smaller.

Like in What Now, a lot of the video footage what loosely shot, homevideo-style, with something approaching a running commentary added later in a separate audio track (the multi-hyphenate Pinto’s most recurrent jobs for countless other Portuguese filmmakers have been in the sound department). Pinto and Leonel handled all sound, editing and cinematography duties, though especially early on, the children from the fishing village tend to hijack the couple’s video camera so they can film what they want, which mostly turns out to be very shaky closeups of themselves.

The point of entry in the film is Joaquim and Nuno’s middle-aged fisherman friend, Artur, whose extensive family lives in Rabo de Peixe, on the northern coast of the Azores’ biggest island, Sao Miguel, some 850 miles west of continental Portugal. Artur’s daughter, Diana, is married to Pedro, who is also a fisherman, as is his twin brother, Manuel, and many of their 10 siblings. Pinto and Leonel go out fishing for swordfish with them on the first day of 2000, and decide to make a film about this disappearing way of life, though they won’t be back until 2001 to actually shoot most of their material.

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For the people of the village, fishing has remained a very labor-intensive and manual job, with the only major change for centuries the replacement of the sailing boat by vessels with motors. Part of the fascination of the film comes from simply observing this quickly disappearing way of life; indeed, what audiences see here is already something of a time capsule, though the filmmakers don’t reveal at the end what has happened to the protagonists since (per the press notes, small-scale fishing has now practically ceased to exist in Rabo de Peixe).

The egalitarian nature of the job, with the small, hardworking crews dividing their income equally once the boat and insurances are paid, feels like something from another era, as does the sheer amount of manual labor that goes into preparing the hundreds of hooks and their bait, the kilometers-long lines and the struggles to sometimes simply get the enormous, still-living animals on board -- and that’s on a windless day. Instead of electronic equipment, they use experience and intuition to both find the shoals and stay safe in rough weather and the countless risks of the job range from not catching anything to simply never returning from sea. The directors capture everything on camera in a loose, semi-improvised style, with Leonel also frequently diving underwater for images, which makes Pinto worried sick each time the nets and hooks go overboard.

If the fishing equipment and methods are old-school, modernity rears its ugly head in the form of frequent police checks in the harbor to check fishing quotas and the necessity for specific fishing licenses for boats of different sizes. Dwindling fish stocks are indeed a cause for concern, though it’s hard to blame the small-scale fishers for these problems when Korean and Spanish trawlers empty the area mechanically for more than six months every year.

However, the idea behind this cut is that Pinto and Leonel get away from making a purely ethnographic documentary, so they regularly add personal reminiscences and ruminations in voice-over and insert personal photos and video footage that suggests what they get up to in their free time on the Azores (fans of Remind Me will appreciate the glimpse of their old dog Rufus as a young pup). Cinematic sea-creatures make an appearance in film stills, while ancient explorers are name-checked alongside Weil, Melville and Spencer Tracy, who played a fisherman from the Azores in his Oscar-winning role in Captains Courageous.

Though this delightful and unique voice again adds a very personal stamp, it doesn’t have the same effect as in Pinto’s masterpiece because he is not the film’s main protagonist. Quite the contrary, it more often than not acts as a barrier between the fishing crews and the viewer, and there’s finally never a sense that we got to know Pedro and Manuel very well as people despite spending almost two hours with them. It’s this film’s strange paradox that what makes it so unique is both part of its appeal and part of its biggest drawback.

Production company: Presente

Directors: Joaquim Pinto, Nuno Leonel

Producers: Joaquim Pinto

Directors of photography: Joaquim Pinto, Nuno Leonel

Editors: Joaquim Pinto, Nuno Leonel


No rating, 103 minutes