A father, his son and a Great Egret say plenty with very few words in this touching film about family relationships, tradition, and man’s true place in nature.
After watching Alamar (To The Sea), the most recent film by Mexican director Pedro González-Rubio, an inevitable question comes to mind: fiction or documentary? The short answer is “both”.
The director acted as cameraman and his entire crew consisted of a sound recordist, much along the lines of the classic production formula used by documentarians such as the Maysles brothers. No escenes were staged, no professional actors were used, there wasn’t really much of a script, and the film was shot entirely in actual locations.
Yet Alamar is not a documentary film, but it’s not exactly fiction either. It walks along the line that separates both genres, doing so with such success that, as the end credits roll, it becomes clear how fortunate it was for the project that not enough money could be raised for a big, obtrusive, fiction-movie-making production crew.
Voiceover narration and family snapshots are the devices used to introduce the story of Jorge and Roberta. He’s Mexican, she’s a traveller from Rome. They fall in love, get together, and soon have a son. They name him Natan, he’s beautiful, the trio basks in love. The story’s dramatic turn arrives when Roberta announces her decision to move back to Rome, leaving Jorge behind and taking five-year-old Natan with her. An agreement is reached: Natan will stay with Jorge for a few months, and both will move in with Jorge’s father, a veteran fisherman nicknamed Matraca who lives in a palafito. Matraca’s small wooden house is raised on stilts above the turquoise waters of Cayo Centro, in the Banco Chinchorro natural reserve, some thirty kilometers off the shore of Quintana Roo.
To the unfamiliar eye the stark surroundings through which father and son travel to get to Matraca’s palafito, first by truck, then on foot, and finally aboard an open boat that makes Natan seasick, may forecast danger and hardship. But the sinking feeling soon vanishes as the audience witnesses the tender relationship between Jorge and Natan, punctuated by Matraca’s deep knowledge of the art of fishing, his talents as a master chef of fish stews and lobster tails, and his perennially jolly mood in the face of a solitary existence.
Days pass, Jorge always looking after Natan, ready to provide answers to the infinite list of questions that spring off the agile mind of a sensible, happy and curious child, even when “I don’t know” is the only truthful answer. But most of the times Jorge does know, and Natan learns. The name of an animal here, a warning about how to stay safe from the crocodile there, the first snorkeling lesson, a wordless but meaningful bumping of foreheads as night falls. Natan pays attention and makes us laugh with comments and reactions as he plays, learns, and works alongside Jorge and Matraca. He draws pictures in a notebook, including one showing “the camera”, a nod to the film’s documentary nature. Vignettes flow naturally and never feel scripted as the film evolves into an honest portrayal of father-son bonding, paying tribute as well to a lifestyle in direct contact with nature and free of all false pretenses.
It is one of these father-and-son sequences that provides the excuse, if any was needed, to review this film in a blog concerned with birds, not cinema. Matraca, Jorge, Natan and a Great Egret become friends for a while after the bird, attracted by leftovers from their catch of fish, becomes a regular visitor at the palafito. Jorge teaches Natan how to move slowly in order to feed the Egret by hand, then tells him how large and threatening humans must seem to a bird. Natan names her Blanquita and, after a few days of having her around, poses the question: “What if she goes away?”. “If she goes away…”, comes Jorge’s answer, “she goes away. She’s free”.
Sure enough the day comes when Blanquita goes away, and so does Natan in due time. As the film closes we see Natan in Rome with his mother, feeding a few ducks in a small artificial stream. The vision has a sad undertone. Nothing like Banco Chinchorro and a good catch of lobster and barracuda, is the thought that comes to mind. Then, from a terrace overlooking the city, Roberta blows soap bubbles up into the air. Natan asks her to blow a big one. The bubble floats away, capturing the child’s imagination. Everything will be all right after all.
Again, fiction or documentary? Both, as explained by Pedro González-Rubio during the film’s premiere in Playa del Carmen. Natan is the son of Roberta Palombini and Pedro Machado (Jorge’s real name). Roberta did take Natan back to Rome. Matraca’s real name is Nestor Marin, and even though he isn’t Pedro’s father he really is a fisherman from Banco Chinchorro, known to everyone as Matraca thanks to his fast, truncated manner of speech. Matraca shared his palafito with Jorge, Natan and the minimal film crew during the almost two years of principal photography. None of the “actors” had previous acting experience and Banco Chinchorro, the film’s quiet character and unsung hero, is still out there in the blue Caribbean sea, bustling with life. Perhaps Alamar will help us realize it should be protected and preserved.
Alamar is a production of Xcalakarma Films and Mantarraya Producciones , directed by Pedro González-Rubio and produced by Jaime Romandía. So far it has won sixteen awards in international film festivals (2009 -2010), which in turn has made it the recipient of the 2011 Award to the Mexican Film with Most International Awards (CANACINE).
Thirty copies were produced for commercial exhibition in Mexico starting August 26 2011. The producers have agreed to donate all proceeds to RAZONATURA A.C. and the SAVE THE CHILDREN foundation in Quintana Roo.
RAZONATURA plans to apply the donated funds toward the continuation of its collaboation with Banco Chinchorro’s community of fishermen and CONANP, with the goal of helping preserve sustainable fishing practices and aid in the care of natural resources at the Reserve of the Banco Chinchorro Biosphere.
SAVE THE CHILDREN is the largest independent organization dedicated to the welfare of children worldwide. Established in 1919, it operates in 120 countries and has been active in Mexico since 1973. Starting in 2005 they have implemented several programs to benefit the children of Quintana Roo.