Stunning lensing and a deep respect for the stories of coastal Kenyans leave auds pleasantly ruminating on a world touched by magic long after the final credits roll for “Wavumba: They Who Smell of Fish.” Debuting helmer Jeroen van Velzen, a Dutchman partly raised among the islands of Kenya, returns to rediscover the special atmosphere that so enraptured him as a child; he succeeds beautifully, thanks to an elderly fisherman and tale-spinners who bring alive a region where discussing spirits is as natural as speaking of one’s neighbors. Fests and satcasters should reap van Velzen’s bounty from the sea.
The docu’s success comes from a serendipitous combination of glorious visuals (best viewed on large screens) and the helmer’s ability to bring auds into this world without coming off like an ethnographer. Van Velzen has a reverence for the animistic beliefs of the locals, not in a New Age kind of way, but as an open-minded man whose fantasies continue to be informed by the tales he heard as a kid. He’s the opposite of Prospero, willingly returning to the island and open to its magical forces.
For the residents of Wasini Island, at the southeastern tip of Kenya, the sea is where spirits and people come together. Four elders talk of these conjunctions with a matter-of-factness that bespeaks their intimate connection with their surroundings, recounting stories of ambiguous apparitions met on land and water.
The docu’s central figure is Mohammed Masoud Muyongo, called Masoud, a fisherman in tattered T-shirts but with a noble comportment who seeks a last hurrah in the hunt for a large shark. Over five days, with the assistance of a put-upon apprentice, Juma Lonya Mwapitu, the ornery old man gathers special bait and heads to sea in the expectation of reeling in a big one. The real goal is to beat back time, even if only temporarily, and reassert a centuries-old tradition that is doubtless making way for more prosaic fishing strategies.
Young lenser Lennart Verstegen (“Rabat”) has a terrific compositional eye, and the lighting of the four storytellers has a striking Caravaggesque quality. A nighttime hunt for sea snakes, lit by a large, broomlike torch, feels like something out of a fairy tale, and despite the difficulties of shooting on water and in small boats, the visuals prove a continual source of pleasure.
Print viewed had Dutch narration, but an English-lingo version exists, as well as a 59-minute smallscreen affair. “Wavumba” is the local tribe’s name, which translates as “They Who Smell of Fish.”