Kirsten Strayer April 22 2019

Water Motifs


In the earliest known human poetry, men are constantly either being imperiled by the ocean or drawn in by its seductive darkness. The Iliad, for example, sees Achilles mourning the loss of his brethren while looking at the “wine-dark” sea, already drawing parallels between the depths of the ocean and the inebriating effects of alcohol. Water is required for life, but also can be a real, bodily threat to that life’s very existence. As such, it has taken on kind of duality as a motif, recurring as both an incomprehensible void and as the center of all life. And, even if the sea no longer holds quite the same terrors, it nevertheless maintains that metaphorical duality of the earlier epics. This Spotlight explores those same water motifs in the current moment, albeit with new twists and urgencies.

The short films Woza (Pato Martinez and Francisco Canton, 2017) and The Water Will Carry Us (Gabrielle Tesfaye, 2018) bring water myths to the present day, combining figural mythology with global sensibilities. Woza—which is both a film on its own and also a brand announcement— does read like a surf commercial, but nonetheless speaks to the powerful and dangerous intimacies that spring up between humans and the ocean. In the film, a prize-winning surfer falls under the love-spell of Mami Wata, an ancient water goddess. Seductive and dangerous, the sea images link surfing—a contemporary leisure activity--with communing with pre-historic deities, as well as a return to an older spirituality. In The Water Will Carry Us, the film creates new mythic water worlds. Drawing upon the idea of Drexciya, the short animation recounts the creation of Atlantic mermaids from the fetuses of those pregnant women who jumped ship –or were lost--during the Middle Passage. Positing the depths of the ocean as a source of power—not fear—for certain peoples, the film celebrates the dangers of the ocean as central to its life-creating properties.

Cry Me a River (2008) is grounded in naturalism, not mythology, but nonetheless pulls from the same motifs. In “sixth generation” filmmaker Jia Zhangke’s short drama, four college friends (and sometimes lovers) reconnect ten years after graduation. As they talk about the failures of the present, water frames the characters. While the characters grow older, they also grow more stagnant, unable or unwilling to salvage joy in their lives. Here, water stands in for the “journey” of life but also its absolute motionlessness—the ways that humans are immobile in the most important moments of their own lives. 

These motifs become literal in As the Sea Levels Rise (Nguyen Khoi). A documentary about flooding and farming practices in Bangladesh, the film points to the actual feast or famine that water infrastructures bring to rural communities. The southwest portion of the country is susceptible to yearly floods, which can leave large portions of arable land under water. The government is exploring new ways to manage water so that rivers don’t flood the land that’s being used. Water, in this instance, is the source of the problem and also the solution, underscoring its dual nature.

In the experimental short film Toward the Colonies (Miryam Charles, 2015), we see a transcribed monologue of a medical examiner that is trying to assess the body of a young girl, without being able to understand exactly what has happened to her. The film intersperses rather calm, unassuming clips of the ocean between the examiner’s thoughts. The film’s abrupt juxtapositions—between the visuals of the ocean and the violence of the narration—come together with a line from the narrator in the middle: “Day 93: Lost at sea.” At this moment, both the vastness of the ocean and its potential terrors undermine its calm beauty.

In Rubicon (Gil Alkabetz, 1997), water is not explicitly visible but nonetheless the source of all problems for the animated characters involved. Crossing the Rubicon, of course, means to pass the point of no return. In this short film, a man needs to get a cabbage, a sheep, and a wolf from one side of a river to the other. While at first the film shows the riddle’s more conventional answer, it then devolves into animated play. The river shifts location, while the animals merge into each other and become abstract. The water here is a dynamic source of radical reinvention, both instigating and reflecting difference. 

About the author

Kirsten Strayer is a writer, curator, and film scholar who has published in academic journals, anthologies, and pop culture magazines. Her recent anthology, Transnational Horror Across Visual Media: Fragmented Bodies, was published in 2014 by Routledge Press.