LFF 2020: The Salt in Our Waters Review
Writer-director Rezwan Shahriar Sumit’s debut feature, The Salt in Our Waters (Nonajoler Kabbo), marks his first appearance at the London Film Festival, his drama hopefully benefiting from being part of a smaller, less overcrowded, event. Previous shorts already showcased his potential under the Berlinale Talents banner and that translates into an impressive first effort that sees local traditions clash with modernity, while the threat of climate change hangs in the air and a love story quietly and unexpectedly develops.
We are introduced to a young artist called Rudro (a friendly-faced Titas Zia), a city-based sculptor heading to an unnamed mangrove island off the coast of Bangladesh. It was once a land belonging to imams and Sufis, with Islamic traditions still living on today and upheld by an elder referred to as the Chairman (Fazlur Rahman Babu). The island thrives on fishing Illish from the surrounding waters, a small but essential industry vital to the locals survival. Rudro is initially welcomed with open arms, but his female-based art soon interferes with the Chairman’s preferred order of things, leading to a culture clash that divides the island.
Rudro’s statues are classed as idols by the Chairman and his small band of loyal followers, a practice not permitted by the Prophet Muhammad’s teachings. He finds support from Bashar (Ashok Bepari), who warns him early on to steer clear of the Chairman, and forms a growing bond with his daughter Tuni (Tasnova Tamanna). Climate change is affecting the flow of fish into their waters but Rudro’s arrival is pinned as the sole reason for the drought. The Chairman himself is a big fish in a small pond, keeping the villagers in debt and service to him, allowing him to dictate all major decisions made on the island.
Part-backed by the Spike Lee Foundation, The Salt in our Waters takes a leisurely approach to its storytelling, matching the easy pace and rhythm of the location. The environment's natural lighting really benefits Chananun Chotrungroj’s photography, capturing stark elements of a landscape ruptured by its stormy past, while also lending itself to the native colours of the sea, sand and skyline. For a film no doubt shot on a small budget the visual elements play an important role in bringing this isolated community and culture to life.
While made clear that the Chairman doesn’t always have the best interests of the locals at heart, Sumit works in enough grey areas to ensure he isn’t completely villainised. There’s a naturalism to the writing that supports this, while rarely a beat is missed by his cast. Babu’s calm, warm authority carries with it just the right amount of menace without hamming it up, while there’s little to determine this as being Zia’s first-time on camera. Yet it’s another newcomer in Tamanna that is really the standout, offering a quiet and determined presence and stealing attention away from her co-stars.
The final act requires the plot to move up a gear or two and that is where things are a little less convincing, some events feeling rushed and like late additions used to heighten tensions (particularly those surrounding a young boy called Nisar, a sub-plot that was nicely developed earlier in the film before being largely forgotten). Sumit’s strength at this stage of his career clearly lies in exhibiting the details of people’s lives and their everyday existence, producing natural performances from his cast and bringing to life a part of the world rarely shown to audiences in the West.
The Salt in Our Waters plays at the London Film Festival.
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