A Log from the Sea of Cinema: Close-Up on "Fish Tail"

It is life at its purest that Joaquim Pinto and Nuno Leonel capture in their documentary about an Azorean fishing village.
Patrick Holzapfel

Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Joaquim Pinto and Nuno Leonel's Fish Tail (2015) is showing April 16 - May 16, 2018 in the United States as part of the series The Unusual Subjects.

When I was a child, my dreams had me follow the mysterious shadows of one Long John Silver. I used to sit in my bed in the south of Germany late at night, hundreds of miles away from any sea or real adventures. However, I was under the spell of Robert Louis Stevenson, his written feelings, and those mysterious figures that came from many dangerous journeys undertaken and many more ahead. Emotions lingered on obscure horizons, emotions that I now find only in a kiss or in filmmakers such as Fritz Lang or Jacques Rivette. Nothing related to these feelings can be called "real," but still there are only a few childhood memories more vivid than those far-away islands and imagined images of the sea. In contrast, Fish Tail, an essayistic journey to a far-away island in the Azores by Joaquim Pinto and Nuno Leonel, is about the confrontation with the apparent reality of such a journey. It is above all a film interested in the fishermen and inhabitants of the eponymous island Rabo de Peixe ("fish tail") on Sao Miguel. It is a film in the spirit of Robert Flaherty, portraying the "Man of Sao Miguel," his life beyond the needs of modern civilization. Rabo de Peixe is a village that is home to the largest collection of artisanal fisheries in the whole archipelago. Thus the film finds doubt and beauty related to the search for little wonders of light, the adventure and mystery that each journey to the sea carries with it.

There is a desire for departure and adventure in the images and diary-like words of Pinto and Leonel, a real-life couple also known for their sound work with filmmakers such as João César Monteiro, António Reis, Margarida Cordeiro, Manoel De Oliveira or Raúl Ruiz. As was the case with Pinto’s beautiful What Now? Remind Me, there are also some reflections on the nature of cinema. The two filmmakers establish an opposition between a cinema that tries to imitate and create reality with a great deal of effort, money and people involved, and the direct, more open approach they choose for themselves in Fish Tail. It may also be a cinema of illusion against a cinema that believes in reality. Or, as the voice-over narration proposes, a cinema that separates and a cinema that brings together. As the film comes to its conclusion, it is said that cinema is supposed to be the truth 24 frames a second, but it is also said that one of the great films is called The Grand Illusion.

It is not easy to ignore the fact that the history of fishing villages in cinema is as rich as the history of fishing villages as such. Meaning it is very possible that cinephiles arrive at those villages with certain dreams and images in their head. Maybe in Fish Tail the adventure appears neither in cinema nor in reality, but in the meeting of both. How to create such a meeting? The film employs a strong sense of time and place. The voice-over and camera are constantly giving us a sense of a presence not to be denied. Time moves and we are here in this very moment. This very moment consists of banalities, daily routines as well as of sparkles and wonders. It is life at its purest, and Pinto and Leonel capture it with very modest means. They make a strong statement: what cinema dreams about is not the grand illusion, but life. They show both the impossibility of that life and its truth.

Fish Tail is not about going to some remote and exciting place, exploiting the people one wants to film and disappearing into cities and cinemas. It is, rather, a choice of a way of life and thus it comes as no surprise when the filmmakers declare, toward the end of their cinematic journey shot between 1999 and 2002 but premiered in the version the filmmakers aspired to only in 2015, that they decided to stay on the island. The requirements of life constantly interfere with the dreams about the film. On the one hand side, one hears about Pinto’s Hepatitis C treatment, on the other hand side, he manages to take a journey into an unknown night with the fishermen. Here one listens to and sees the daily work of the fishermen, there one dives into sunbeams seeping through the water. As in The Last Time I Saw Macao by João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata, one constantly feels that an expectation and a cinema exist before the image. When Pinto and Leonel intercut images of cinema’s history of the sea, use music from classic films or talk about how Spencer Tracy won an Oscar for playing an Azorean fisherman in Captains Courageous, cinema is ever so present. Maybe my dreams about Long John Silver weren’t dreams after all. They were first glimpses of a possible life, a life that wants to be as infused with curiosity and openness as the filmmaking of Pinto and Leonel. For cinema, beyond its constant battle between truth and lie lies a way of life. 

Another meeting point between reality and illusion shows in the way history and science are treated in Fish Tail. The filmmakers give a strong sense of accuracy as they do not leave out data and numbers to describe the structure of the village and the work of fishing. The ecosystem is tackled, as are the consequences of globalization. One also gets a sense of the struggle those people face with their small boats and constant police checks while big companies exploit the sea. There is no chance for fair competition. All that is left is the attempt to survive as long as possible.  On the other hand, the history of the village is also one of legends. Thus one hears about a story in which the first fishermen of the region shared their catch with a huge hungry sea lion. One also meets a young man claiming to be the son of a dolphin. It also seems fitting that a point is made not about the work of fishing but the art of fishing. Much of the beauty of the film derives from the way it insists on showing the grace of those workers. It is not about fact or fiction, but much more about the possibilities that linger between the hardships and injustices of daily life.

How to I keep dreaming? Recurring images of the beautiful sea will not suffice. The way Fish Tail looks at traditions at risk of extinction is touching and exigent because it not about nostalgia or melancholia. It is about showing a possible life. These people might remind us of forgotten civilizations, they might bring certain images to mind, but, after all, they exist, they are real. Perhaps the image of the rainbow toward the end of the film exemplifies this best. It is a miracle, but it is true. It is poetry, but also science. It is the result of something, but also a stairway to heaven. Just like the task of finding the right place to fish, cinema is also somewhere between experience and hope. 

Ultimately, one of the decisive moments between hope and expectation occurs when the filmmakers give the camera to some children from the village: "If you want to go fishing, we want to film." Through the images of young people living on the island we get another image, one that shows the closeness of people, the way they communicate with each other. And it is also here that the dreams about the sea and Robert Louis Stevenson become inverted because it is no longer the adventure, the archetype or the ancient traditions the camera searches for. It is cinema itself. As if, as a child, instead of sitting on a bed and reading about adventures, I lived on a boat and dreamt about all the books I could be reading instead.

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Close-UpNow ShowingJoaquim PintoNuno Leonel
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