Dir: Joaquim Pinto, Nuno Leonel. Portugal. 2015. 103mins

Fish Tail

A community of small-scale fishermen in the Azores is the focus of Fish Tail (Rabo de Peixe), from Portuguese life partners and collaborators Joaquim Pinto and Nuno Leonel. It’s an insightful documentary portrait of the daily survival routines of this economically embattled Portuguese outpost, whose port is its lifeblood and whose traditional fishing methods are feeling the pinch from industrialised competitors.

The limits of the camera’s capacity to transmit and share experience in a world in which there will always be unknowns are underscored.

Reaching beyond outsider observational ethnography, it’s a profoundly human, intimate diary that weaves in philosophical reflections and mythical references in a poetically associative manner that assumes an inter-connectedness between all things. While this approach in less accomplished hands could prompt accusations of new-agey sentimentalism, here downplayed sincerity, sheer depth of thought and rare sensitivity pulses through every frame.

Fans of the Portuguese pair’s previous films, such as 2013 festival favourite What Now? Remind Me will not be disappointed by the similar style of Fish Tail. An extended re-edit of a version originally made for TV in 2003 that was slashed back at the unwelcome behest of the broadcaster, it should be well received by audiences at festivals at the more risk-taking, experimental end of the spectrum.

Joaquim and Nuno first visited the island in the late ‘90s to see in the New Year and befriended members of the community. We see the genesis of the film, as young fisherman Pedro agrees to take them out to shoot a swordfishing trip. A number of sea expeditions follow.

The filmmakers are very present in front of the camera as we see this process unfold, but unlike many such projects this feels in no way self-involved – rather, their investment in the relationships they capture fosters an intimacy and candour that is genuinely moving, and their spontaneous footage, shot without a crew with a shaky, home-movie feel, never feels staged or forced. Joaquim narrates in a monologue of quietly unobtrusive reflection and surprising tendrils of association that could not be further from the authoritative didacticism of films more conventionally documenting the natural world.

That world and how humans fit into it is of tantamount importance to Pinto, who quotes Marxist activist-turned-mystic Simone Weil early on in the film saying that despite the difficulties fishermen face their lot is far better than that of a production-line worker because it more resembles that of a free man.

The filmmakers clearly revere the fishermen’s lifestyle as a purer means of existence, with the physicality and rhythms of their labour as they haul in nets and work on tackle masterfully woven into the whole like a melody with variations repeated, and the communal sharing of their gains referred to as a practice lamentably now lost in mainland Europe. But far from romanticising the island as an idyll, the socio-economic pressures on its inhabitants are set out, with their artisanal fishing hard-pressed to eek out a living in competition with the plundering practices of Spanish trawlers and Korean factory boats.

The bureaucracy of regulations is also a stifling obstacle to their livelihood (Pedro throws himself into a crash-course to get to the required educational level for a license to fish legally), not to mention the sheer danger of the sea, which claims many of the men’s lives. The tender melancholy of this mortal fragility underpins the film’s most affecting scenes, as Rui – another of the adult locals we come to know well – panics about drowning while learning to swim; while Joaquim, himself feeling ill from the Hepatitis treatment he has started, feels restless for Nuno’s safety whenever he ventures down diving.

Doubts are raised in the filmmakers’ minds about the usefulness of filmmaking, and its phony recreations as set against the immediacy of raw experience. Showing fishing-trip footage to the women in the kitchen (the town is firmly separated along gender lines, a division the directors are keen to flout) has helped bring the community together, Joaquim concludes as narrator - though we don’t actually see this incident in a film in which women rarely appear.

The limits of the camera’s capacity to transmit and share experience in a world in which there will always be unknowns are underscored. Nuno describes the otherworldly stingrays and coal-covered walls he sees deep-sea diving but doesn’t turn the camera on. “He kept the moment to himself,” muses Joaquim.

Other scenes of underwater filming – a pink jellyfish, and shoals of shining mackerel – are recorded, and are delicately sublime, with the added beauty of the top-notch sound work Pinto made his name for (working on the films of directing greats such as Manoel de Oliviera, Raul Ruiz and Joao Cesar Monteiro), subtly weaving in strands of dominantly Portuguese music.

The clear implication is that these rich eco-systems are part of a wider global one we could take more sustainable care of, though this never feels like a moralising command on the part of the filmmakers despite their obvious empathy for this embattled fishermen breed. This environmental slant could help packaging, though the philosophical threads and challenging, multi-layered form will play too esoteric for wider release appeal.

Production company:  Presente Lda, info@presente.pt

Producer:  Joaquim Pinto

Screenplay: Joaquim Pinto, Nuno Leonel

Cinematography: Joaquim Pinto, Nuno Leonel

Editor: Joaquim Pinto, Nuno Leonel