When you hear “nomad,” you probably think about tribes living on horseback, or maybe migrating via camel or wagon. You probably don’t imagine a people who more or less live on boats. But the Moken sail around the coasts of Thailand and Burma in canoes and motorized launches, basing not only their livelihoods on the ocean, but also their identity, their myths, their very understanding of the universe. Olivia Wyatt’s hourlong documentary captures a rich, but limited, view into their world.
Wyatt’s film opens with gorgeous images of the sea and Moken fishermen dipping beneath its waves while a voice-over relates a creation story. Wyatt utilizes this juxtaposition throughout, delivering a riot of colorful, if sometimes rough-hewn, footage alongside audio of the Moken telling their story in their own way, through myths, songs, and sometimes startlingly straightforward conversation. (At one point, a Moken man explains in one breath that his people have no last names, don’t count their ages, and, in fact, don’t count anything.) Wyatt’s obvious intimacy with the families she follows allows her to capture prosaic details about their lives, such as courtship essentials and the somewhat hair-raising sight of women cooking meals over an open fire in a pitching boat. But the doc’s stream-of-consciousness voice-over—built from interviews with the Moken subjects— also reveals their spiritual beliefs and playful inner lives. Not only do you learn that the Moken believe in mermaids, you listen as one woman recalls the time her uncle had sex with one.
“Sailing a Sinking Sea’s” dreamy, impressionistic ethnography packs a potent wow factor. But at worst its impressionism flirts with hagiography and at best it raises questions that the approach inhibits it from answering. The Moken are shown spending time in houses on the beach, but it’s not clear if it’s a single settlement they return to or one of several. They are shown listening to pop radio, watching music videos, and sailing alongside commercial fishing vessels, but you gain little understanding of their relationship with modern society on land. In the final reel, one Moken man offers on the voice-over that his is probably the “last generation to live on boats,” but he doesn’t appear on-screen, so it’s impossible to tell whether he’s young or old. An entrancing, if potentially frustrating film.