My father fished as a hobby throughout my childhood. He made lures and rods in our basement in Toronto, Canada and on weekends he would take this self-made gear north to our cottage and fish early morning into dusk. I was not overly interested in fishing, but I enjoyed spending time with my father, and I learned some of these techniques not because I was directly trying to, but rather by watching him and asking questions.
The men in the village of Mirya on the west coast of India, the place where The Ebb Tide is shot, are teaching and learning in a similar way. Ancestral techniques passed down from father to son over many generations are still being used for survival. The young boys go to school and have dreams of doing other work or creative pursuits. But they often come back to this ancestral way of supporting themselves and their families due to lack of employment and prospects in the «outside» world. The skills are part of their childhood; the life is home to them. In Mirya, these skills are what have kept these people going in times of no other work and no other choice.
This hour-long film shows us small-scale fishing: during monsoon season the water rises and the men are able to capitalise on this by fishing in the high creek waters. Different methods of fishing are shown: hunting for crabs amongst the mangrove trees, night fishing with nets during the high tide, casting from a boat in the waters of the swollen creek. There is not much of an explanation as to which creek we are at or who the men are specifically – the men are presented as archetypes, the everyman in this situation.
As viewers, we are learning by watching just as the boys did from their fathers. And we are being shown a skill that was only taught to the boys of the village. Women have no place in these activities. Indeed there are no women in the film other than the filmmaker herself.
Ancestral techniques passed down from father to son over many generations are still being used for survival.
Early on in The Ebb Tide, director Renu Savant comments that she was originally in Mirya doing research for her film about deep-sea fishing. But none of the big-business fishermen would let her shoot. The monsoon arrives and she begins capturing images of the local fisherman in the creek. She hired a crew to shoot in Mirya and credits them with the images that build this film.
Occasionally there is voice-over from the director. But interestingly it never attempts to further comment on the action of the film. Instead, it speaks of the making of the film itself in concise clear statements: «The images I make are a record of the times and the people working in this creek».
There is no music in the film, also with minimal editing and dialogue. During the night-fishing scenes, only the flashlights they themselves hold illuminate the men and their nets. We just watch what is going on. We often only see the backs of the fishermen. These men were taught by observation over many years. And that’s what this film mirrors for us. We feel as if we ourselves are youth, let in on this secret of ancestral heritage.
One of the themes in the film is a sustainable blue economy. A young man remarks, «A friend once said to me, we should take up our traditional business – fishing. I told him, traditionally fishing is not a business, our ancestors just made a living out of it».
Patience, skill, luck
Big-business fishing is rampant these days and it is rapidly depleting the oceans and lakes around the world. Bycatch occurs at a staggering volume with hundreds of species caught and killed in order to catch only one species of fish. This film shows us that fishing was not meant to be an activity played out on a mass scale. It is a form of hunting, originally meant to help humans survive. «Fish are a natural wealth, for the poor», says a fisherman. Fishing is not meant to cause the destruction of marine environments as bottom trawling and overfishing do, leaving a barren landscape in its wake.
Fishing is a languid activity taking patience, skill, and luck.
This film is powerful in its simplicity and remarkable in how it touches on many themes in a concise way over its short runtime. The Ebb Tide is not perfect, nor is it trying to be. It is a quiet, contemplative and calm film. Fishing is a languid activity taking patience, skill, and luck. The film is a reflection of this in its slow unhurried nature.