Wavumba: Tribeca Review

Kenya-set doc adds the spirit world to a poignant old-man-and-the-sea tale.

This quiet documentary set in Kenya, following an old fisherman with fading strength, rightly earned director Jeroen van Velzen Tribeca's Best New Documentary Director award.

NEW YORK — Steeped in legends of spirits but ultimately dominated by the most tangible fact of life, Jeroen van Velzen's Wavumba casts a quiet spell as it follows an old fisherman whose strength has left him. Persuasively atmospheric, the doc -- which earned van Velzen Tribeca's Best New Documentary Director award -- will be well liked on the fest circuit but may have trouble in the commercial arena.

The director, who lived in Kenya as a child before attending English boarding school, returns to a fishing village there and meets Masoud, a grizzled old man known in his heyday as The Commander. Though reportedly able to catch huge sharks single-handedly in his youth, Masoud now appears to eke out a living wading the shallow waters and stabbing small octopi and ugly fish out of holes in reef formations.

We follow as Masoud and his put-upon assistant Juma set out to see if the old man, who freely and often remarks on his fading strength, can still catch a shark. Van Velzen (making his feature-length debut) follows his subject in long, unhurried takes accompanied by almost solemn voiceover. Lennart Verstegen's photography is vividly moody, evoking the spirit world constantly alluded to here -- a world whose disappearance mirrors the fading of Masoud's vigor -- while also attending to physical details like the creases and scars transforming the old man's hands.

Some viewers may balk at the Dutch filmmaker's use of a local shaman and his romanticization of local myths; the movie does flirt with exotica for its own sake. But a climactic midnight sequence, in which Masoud hunts sea snakes to use as bait and clubs them violently by torchlight, is otherworldly enough to justify much of the narration's reverent mood.

Bottom Line: Kenya-set doc adds the spirit world to a poignant old-man-and-the-sea tale
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival, World Documentary Competition
Production Company: SNG Film
Director: Jeroen van Velzen
Screenwriters: Jeroen van Velzen, Sara Kee
Producer: Digna Sinke
Director of photography: Lennart Verstegen
Music: Jeroen Schmohl
Editor: Stefan Kamp
Sales: Sasha Wieser, EastWest Filmdistribution
No rating, 80 minutes

Primary Cast: Mohammed Masoud Muyongo, Juma Lonya Mwapitu

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