A voiceover is channelling Japanese mythology over a blank screen. “The sea is tears of the gods, the depths below are devoid of sound,” it intones, “however much awaits to be seen… to look takes bravery.” The voice softens slightly. “I wonder why I chose such gruelling work… looking back tears come to my eyes. Can you see what makes me me?” The black of the vacant screen dissolves into a morning scene of domesticity; a boy quietly eating breakfast, his mother wiping the table. The intimacy of the opening shot is extended by the next scene, we hover close to the son watching cartoons while his mother, discussing the conditions of the sea, pegs clothes through the window in a humble family tableau. Though based in the depths of the Pacific, a warmth extends through Cláudia Varejão’s Ama-San, a documentary exploring Japan’s “ama,” shellfish skin divers (literally “women of the sea”), a fragile culture in perfect harmony with its surrounding environment.
Director Varejão (Cold Day, In the Darkness of the Theatre I Take off my Shoes), who lived with the ama for the duration of the shoot, has explained her personal connection to the ama through shared womanhood and her seaside childhood on the coast of Portugal. Comprising three sprawling generational portraits, Ama-San examines the peaceful ama-san tradition now at risk from the over-ambitious fishing industry. The lure of modernisation plays a role too, the divers armed with nothing but a winkle-pick and lungful of air dive on seabeds with slim offerings. Set in Wagu, a slow-moving fishing village on Japan’s Ise Peninsula, Ama-San uses complex aesthetic combinations of camera and light to infuse its beauty with ecofeminist politics, hinged on women floating harmoniously in a fragile marine bubble of work and environment. Wandering conversations worry about overfishing and muse on the spoils of the good old days and an elder advises on the best ways to dive continually without damaging the inner ear. Combining poetic imagery with diegetic conversation, Varejão makes explicit the importance of preserving this world by showing its beauty whilst questioning its future.
Varejão’s moody, living tableaus seem almost expressionistic, capturing informal portraits of the ama and their families through gesture. In one of the first sequences, ama Masumi rides a scooter to work in close up, returning our gaze. Later, when her eyes fall shut as she sings with her son, it’s as if there is no distance at all — we’re instead nestled against them, the quotidian transformed into the sublime. Varejão locates the richness in this simplicity, offering such tenders moments as living treasures like those the ama find in the ocean depths.
Ama-San is a bewitching dive into both family and national history alive with the symbiotic relationship the ama have with their environment; it feeds them, pays their wage, they live happily from it. In a raucous, rose-coloured karaoke scene, an older woman sings reluctantly to other ama. “A village nostalgic to anyone, a famous home where the ama reside,” she croaks, swaying to the crowd’s rhythmic clapping, “ a sight of lilies lay on Oshima, a whistle alive with the wind.” The song’s lyrics lead the mind to wander to the other women in attendance, and the vast tradition of prayer and labour they doggedly attend to. These incidental melodies pervade Ama-San: dialogue lapses in and out of audibility; shots linger on the edges of focus; the scope is often wide, quietly observing interior and exterior lives. It’s like easing into a warm bath.
Water is nothing new for women’s cinema, with directors as diverse as Jane Campion (Top of the Lake), Lucrecia Martel (MUTA) and Céline Sciamma (Water Lillies) all taking the plunge into pools, lakes and seas as a means of suspending the feminine body for a closer look. It takes a while for Varejão to bring us to the seabed, following the ama as they tumble backwards over the rickety boat. Clearly a fan of autochromes, the underwater scenes play with a bloc of soft muffled tones, often bestowing a preternatural sensuousness to the lush, rippling images, both instinctive and carefully considered. Ama-San’s washed-out pastel palette of pinks, yellows and whites pop against the deep blue, almost as though one were looking through the viewfinder of a Diana camera. Oshima’s light seems veiled and diffused, at times overwhelming in its beguiling intensity. Rather than the clichéd pinscreen of the tiny human figure dwarfed by nature, Varejão favours closer shots that align humans, animals and the environment. There’s a touch of Yasujirō Ozu in the shallow-focus extreme close ups of the faces and hands of the divers, a tenderness expressed through the lacy focus, like the gauze ama wrap their heads in before submerging.1
Within this beauty, Varejão also takes time to explore the ravages the ama’s work takes on their bodies: the skin conditions, aches, dizziness and fatigue. The work of the ama seems unending, their quality of life deeply affected by the ever-present threat of sharks, pollution and illness. The director challenges romantic notions of the tradition with these frank inclusions, her camera working alongside the women, making us feel the pull of their muscles in ours — even as, per Sophie Mayer’s remark2 on ecofeminist cinema, the film can’t avoid the irony that we experience this from the luxury of our cinema seats.