Kate Tessa Lee and Tom Schön’s 26-minute German production Sec Rouge sensitively documents the daily lives of octopus fisherwomen on Rodrigues, a small, hilly, volcanic island in the Indian Ocean. Just over 100 square kilometres in size, Rodrigues (pop. 42,000) lies about 500 kilometres East of Mauritius, which is itself about 2000 kilometres off the African coast; the two islands are the biggest constituents in the Republic of Mauritius, a British colony until 1968, having previously been Dutch and French for significant spells in the 17th and 18th centuries (it remains largely Francophone.)
Dubbed «Asia’s gateway to Africa», little Mauritius is currently of significant strategic interest to economic giants China and India; there’s even talk of it developing into an economic hub along the lines of Singapore. This corner of the globe nevertheless only intermittently impinges upon the attention of the wider world; it’s long been one of the great merits of documentary cinema that the form can often provide privileged glimpses of such places and people, which most viewers wouldn’t otherwise know exist.
Visually artistic and original
Herself Mauritius-born, visual artist Lee is now based in Berlin where she has been collaborating with Schön since 2015. Their works have been described as «a form of observation where reality and fiction merge,» though on the surface Sec Rouge feels like a fly-on-the-wall slice of Cinéma vérité.
We follow three fisherwomen—all of them named Marie—on dry land and on the water, where they spear the wriggling octopus through the head (location of the biggest of the intelligent creature’s nine brains) with a sharpened stick. Known as piqueuse ourite, this has been a traditional occupation for generations. It’s been a way for the women to earn a little extra money – and experience the pleasures of comradely labour – while their husbands went on fishing expeditions. This can be a hazardous pursuit («some people died without leaving traces»), even more so now thanks to the disruptive effects of climate-change: «I do not understand the language of the sea any more,» despairingly sighs one of the women.
«This corner of the globe nevertheless only intermittently impinges upon the attention of the wider world.»
The most auspicious period for octopus-hunting was the sec rouge spell of the title: a French-Creole term referring to the «dry red» shallow water that followed a lunar tide. These secs rouges are now increasingly rare; the film’s sombre, elegiac tone very much gives the impression that we’re bearing witness to a practice, which will soon vanish into history. But the picture is no mere memorial time-capsule: from the first, extended shot, showing one of the women under a vast pale sky in total silence, it’s clear that we’re in the hands of directors with a very strong visual sense and an original artistic approach to their material.
Sec Rouge is mostly a quiet a ruminative affair – whispered (Christian) prayers before dawn; a dark profile at dusk – whose restricted running time includes numerous protracted shots that qualify the short as part of the much-discussed «slow cinema» genre. But its impact is steadily cumulative; a sequence in the final third – showing the early morning light breaking over the black waters of the ocean – is a stunning coup de cinema, a nocturnal seascape in glistening, fluctuating monochrome.
This enigmatic mood-piece then concludes with a real flourish: we accompany one of the Maries in her boat through increasingly turbulent, roaring waves; she sizes up the situation on a second-by-second basis, finally disembarking at a judiciously-chosen moment as the image cuts to white. It’s a subtly thrilling climax to a film where every shot and transition contributes to the overall impact.
Accession at the cosily ramshackle Werkstattkino
Having premiered at Hamburg in June, Sec Rouge has been steadily making its way around discerning non-fiction-oriented festivals over subsequent months. I caught it on the final day of Underdox, a small, cosy, eclectic seven-day event, which takes place in Munich each autumn. The 13th renewal ran from 11-17 October, and, despite its name, included several unambiguously fictional works (such as Bruno Dumont’s sung-through, hard-rocking Joan-of-Arc biopic Jeannette) alongside «conventional» documentaries and category-blurring hybrids.
«On the surface Sec Rouge feels like a fly-on-the-wall slice of Cinéma vérité.»
The programme in which Sec Rouge featured also saw the world premiere of Accession, a glowingly delicate 48-minute film co-directed by the American duo Armand Yervant Tufenkian and Tamer Hassan, who have been working together since 2008. The pair, based in Los Angeles and Chicago respectively, chose Underdox for their first screening partly because the main venue – the cosily ramshackle Werkstattkino – not only has the facilities to show analogue materials, but actively favours them over digital alternatives wherever possible.
Located in a basement below a courtyard between an independent theatre and a beer-and-meat restaurant, Werkstattkino, which seats about 35, is a true temple of celluloid that feels untouched and unchanged since at least the early 80s. Very little imagination is needed to envisage Munich’s most esteemed/notorious cinematic son, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, sprawling across the back row with a bottle of beer from the makeshift lobby «bar».
An organic, immersive experience
Accession, the title referring to the addition of an item to a library collection, is a work with at least one foot in the past. It’s structured around a series of personal letters written by seed-collectors to others who share their hobby, taken from various decades dating all the way back to 1806 (the first missive is addressed to the President himself!); examples of the seeds themselves would have been included in the original envelopes. The senders and receivers were all located in the USA; over the course of five years the directors travelled to the areas in question, usually tranquil rural spots, and used a single reel of vintage 16mm to record what they saw there. These are reverently listed and specified in the closing credits: «Film stocks in order of appearance.»
Scratches and «imperfections» are visible on the film-grain from start to finish, the inherent beauty of the format inseparable from decay and eventual dissolution. The result is an organic, immersive experience. Everything here is unapologetically old-school, starting from the use of the regular US Mail for communication between far-flung individuals, in a film which functions as a lovingly-crafted compendium of the archaic and the atavistic.
The letters are read by a range of authentic-sounding, sometimes halting non-pro voices («Dear gardening-friend Craig…»), coming together to conjure a bygone, benign vision of near-vanished Americana. They are punctuated with delightful asides and incidental details: «lots of love to all humans, plants and poultry,» as ‘Owen’ signs off. Accession is a touching, small-scale paean to small-scale, independent activity – the very opposite of the hyper-commercialised «big agriculture» which has come to so disastrously dominate the American farming landscape in the last few decades.
The crucial survival of myriad indigenous species depends, we deduce, on the tireless persistence of these green-fingered eccentrics: Tufenkian and Hassan are thus commemorating an unlikely form of «underground resistance», a homespun form of resilience all the more inspiring because of its dependence on such fragile materials. Quite literally, a seminal phenomenon.