In “The Summer of Flying Fish,” Chilean docu director Marcela Said makes a subtle shift into scripted drama, shaping scenes of tension between white landowners and the local Mapuche natives so as to seem unrehearsed. Said’s technique blends flashes of melodrama with such naturalistic choices as shooting on location and working mostly with non-actors, resulting in a challenging fiction/nonfiction hybrid that’s stylistically neither fish nor fowl. From a festival programmer’s perspective, “Summer” is a dream offering: a refined, politically conscious film by a female director that reveals a seldom-seen social dynamic. In commercial spheres, however, it should be a much harder sell.
Turning a contempo lens on a conflict that dates back to America’s first conquistadores, the slender narrative centers on a difference of philosophy between European-descended landowners and South American natives, who believe they belong to the land, rather than vice versa. Generations later, wealthy white men have built vacation homes on what had traditionally been the hunting and fishing grounds of the local Mapuche people, resulting in acts of protest that Said feels have been underrepresented in the media.
This film marks her attempt to address that injustice. As Said’s camera plunges through the mist into the primeval forests of central Chile, the implication seems to be that secrets will soon be revealed. As it turns out, one must be not just vigilant but also relatively well versed in the local conflicts to make sense of a film that relies almost entirely on subtext.
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Though her intention is clearly to raise audience awareness about the way the Mapuche have been mistreated by their white neighbors, forced into lowly service roles (such as nannies, maids, bodyguards and servants) and rendered poachers on their ancestors’ former domain, Said often downplays the central conflict between these two classes. To call her script underwritten would be to miss the point: It’s almost as though what truly matters has been written underneath the scenes that exist. Instead of describing the problem, she wants audiences to feel it.
So, while the natives’ resentment slowly comes to a boil, the lean plot pretends to care whether wealthy landowner Pancho (Gregory Cohen) can kill the out-of-control carp population in his private lake, oblivious to the insult his wastefulness signifies to the locals. Meanwhile, the frequent sight of dead fish becomes a metaphor for a situation in which the privileged class has more than it knows how to use. In one unsettling scene, the Mapuche uncover dozens of carp buried under loosely turned soil. Said withholds their faces but bottles the tension, letting it build as the film unfolds — and an accidental shooting finally provokes a reaction.
Presented mostly in wide shots, the film strives for a certain objectivity, what one might call an “upstream/downstream” model wherein Pancho’s family and his help are caught in private yet not especially dramatic moments. Whether peering from the backseat of the family SUV to see a drunken Mapuche passed out in the dark or hovering like a horror-movie watcher in the woods over teenage daughter Manena (Francisca Walker), the camera placements tend to amplify the unease, an effect compounded by Alexander Zekke’s score.
In perhaps its only gesture toward conventionality, “Summer” serves as a coming-of-age tale for Manena, bearing witness as she flirts with a young man who later betrays her — a first taste of the complicated adult world she already inhabits, but remains too naive still to realize. In a movie of astounding subtlety, this upended romance offers the closest thing to not only a storyline but an emotional connection.