Transcript from post screening Q&A with Tom Schön, co-director of Sec Rouge, at Slow Film Festival 2019. This Q&A was led by Maureen Gueunet.
MG: Hello everyone. Thank you everyone at the Slow Film Festival for having us. And thank you, Tom, for the film. So you co-directed it with Kate Tessa Lee who is from Mauritius and I thought that even though it was mentioned in the introduction could you tell us about the practice of octopus spearing and where it is from and what it represents?
TOM: Well, the film was shot on a really small island in the Indian Ocean called Rodrigues Island. And it belongs to Mauritius, but it’s completely isolated. It’s 600 kilometres from Mauritius and two thousand kilometres from Africa. So it’s been completely isolated for centuries. Kate Lee knows the Island since her childhood, and she would visit every now and then until 2013 when she realized there was a big change: climate change was affecting their ability to fish and spear octopus. Women practice octopus spearing. And through that work they had independence and a special standing in society. And these woman had practiced octopus hunting for generations and were emancipated without knowing what it means.
MG: Maybe you can tell us about how you found those three women and how you worked with them and developed the film with them?
TOM: We spent a lot of time on the island and we had a little bit of funding, and we put all the funding into time. So we spent five months on the island. And for strategic reasons we went there when it is forbidden to hunt octopus for two months. And during the closure they have re-education programs and get ridiculous jobs to just earn a tiny bit of money. It’s no compensation. So we knew about that and this was our entry point because every village had their group of octopus spearers who had to clear the forest or things like that. So we visited all the groups to start up conversations and to see who is there and what they are doing. And this was also the way to find a protagonist. And actually we didn’t find her, but she found us. The main one, the one who does not speak. The two who have a conversation are a mother and daughter – we found them at this time too.
MG: I loved how you included the everyday in the film. In the beginning you see the praying and the preparation. And I liked that combination of documentary moments and moments of contemplation – they were especially evocative. And I want to ask you how this structure came about and what your editing process was. Did you work with a script beforehand?
TOM: Yes we had a script because you need a script to get the funding but for us it was clear that when we got to the island we had to throw away the script. Life is much more interesting. So we didn’t follow a script. We were just making onsite observations and we spoke a lot to two different groups of officials. We went to other islanders. Thankfully Kate comes from Mauritius so she speaks Creole – it’s her mother tongue. So it was quite easy to communicate with them and they’re quite open and it’s a really warm and welcoming culture. So this was our entry point. And after five months we had at least 30 hours of material. So the editing process was something completely different. We didn’t follow, again, a script or any concept and we edited together. This was the first time I had edited with someone else. All of you filmmakers know that this is really difficult, to edit the film with someone else. Usually you’re a director and you have an editor who you can discuss things with, but you decide. So in this case, it was something else. And this was the biggest challenge for us. For us to find a common film language. We followed a kind of intuitive way of editing, trying things out, watching the image over and over again and tried to see how the images spoke to us. And somehow the film edited itself.
MG: Those sea sequences are great and they’re very long and it is exemplary of slow cinema. And I really like that in the film. And the first thing we hear, the first voice we hear is “I do not understand the language of the sea anymore”, and there’s this idea of climate change and global forces changing and impacting the lives of those women. And I wanted to know how you figured out how to put those sea sequences into the film, and what they represent and what it means.
TOM: I mean the sea is omnipresent, even if you don’t see it all the time you hear it all the time. It’s an island and it’s surrounded by a lagoon, and this is where they make their living. There aren’t many green areas where you can plant crops so the sea is their survival. And what you quoted is one sentence from Malala when she said “I can’t understand the language of the sea anymore.” This is for me the main sentence in the film. Actually, you don’t need more to understand what is going on. These people have hunted octopus since childhood in the lagoon and it was always predictable. There’s a full moon so you have high tide for a couple of days. There’s a new moon, so you have a dry lagoon for a couple of days, shallow water. If the water is not shallow then you cannot go fishing because it is highly dangerous. The water must be to the knees or waist. With climate change it is completely unpredictable now. So many times we went to the lagoon to shoot the hunting scenes but the water was too high, far too high. And even a couple of days later, the same again and again and again. So they can’t really fish anymore. We only found one woman who could still make a living out of octopus spearing. It’s impossible.
MG: You did get a good octopus spearing scene though, which is quite impressive. Good one for just before lunch… Does anyone have any questions?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: You said that you found the community on the island to be very warm and welcoming but was there any resistance to you exploring any aspects of the culture on the islands? Were there any aspects of the culture that people were resistant to you documenting?
TOM: I mean, what is culture? For me culture is a way of living. It’s not a food supply. It’s more the way you communicate, the way you address each other. It’s also the language and it’s really, really allegorical language and full of images and they’re gossiping constantly. And there was no resistance. Of course, some of them were a bit sceptical about what we wanted. But the fact that we spent so much time on the island convinced them. It was not the first film team to visit the island. There had been a documentary made a couple of years ago that focused on fishing, not octopus spearing, but about the men who were fishing. They captured some stuff and then they disappeared. And the Islanders never knew what happened to those images. I was surprised that whenever we met the islanders they would ask us why we were still there. I think it is a question of trust, of mutual trust and we had to trust the protagonist because if you start working with someone you need to work to the end. And they needed to trust us and I think they understood that we didn’t have any bad intentions.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Have you shown them the film? Do they have an opinion on how they were represented?
TOM: Not yet. But this is a must. This was the plan from the beginning but after finishing this film we made a feature film out of our material. Which is not a long version of Sec Rouge, it has another perspective and differs in form and content. It’s not so much about the climate of the ocean. Here the ocean is omnipresent. In the feature film, the ocean is far away and we are stuck on land. And we just finished it a couple of months ago and next year the idea is to go back to the island and show the film there. And it’s quite simple to show the film there because every village has a community house and all we need is a projector and two speakers and you can organise it by yourself. This is the plan. This is a necessity.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I was wondering about this noise that you hear when the woman spears the octopus. It’s such a painful sound and I was wondering if you did much sound design on it afterwards.
TOM: This is the original sound. The microphone was really close. I mean, I did do some design but I didn’t add any special effects sound. This is really how it sounds. It’s a bit louder in the film than it would be in reality of course, but it’s the real sound, the sound of the killing. It’s not a nice sound.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I loved the sound design in general and I noticed you were credited with that. Can you talk a bit more about that, and how wonderfully loud the sea was at the end.
TOM: I mean this is original sound but of course the lagoon is not as loud as this. It’s loud, especially if you come closer to the reefs it’s really loud, but of course I added several layers and especially in this sequence where the black ocean becomes silvery. This is the beauty – the beauty lies in the image. So the sound is the beast. It’s all about duality in the end. It’s a beautiful lagoon, but it’s dangerous.
MG: Yeah you can feel that dangerous presence in the sea throughout the film – I love that. And maybe you can talk about the last sequence and that last shot which turns to white. What was your intention with that? It’s quite unsettling.
TOM: When we edited it we always wanted to go back to the boat ride after the black sea moment. They don’t normally use boats so we organized the boat. But we didn’t intend to shoot on the boat. It was not planned. It was planned to go very close to the reef, which is quite far out. It’s around three or four kilometres and to come back on foot when the water is coming in is very dangerous. So we organized the boat because we wanted to film a big octopus catch. But then we saw the light, it was almost artificial but it was like that. The sea was golden and so Tessa took the camera spontaneously and we started shooting on the boat. And when we saw the image it was clear this is the ending. When she gets out of the boat this is the future. She jumps into white. Or Something.
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