Berlinale 2021 review: Last Days at Sea (Venice Atienza)

Halfway through Last Days at Sea the afternoon sets in in the little coastal village of Karihatag in the Philippines. A spell seems to be cast over the land, as everyone suddenly falls in a deep sleep. The camera roams around the town, the intense sunlight hypnotizing everything it touches, including a dog and a cat lying down without a worry in the world. In a voice-over, director Venice Atienza is surprised to have fallen under the spell, as she hadn’t had an afternoon nap since she was a little child. What is it in this town that has finally engulfed her after the time she has spent filming there?

The sleeping spell is not just magical, though. It’s also practical. Karihatag is a village with a fishing tradition and, with the risk of being overtaken by industrial fishing, its inhabitants have organized themselves to make a sustainable living, demarcating areas where fishing is prohibited and fishing only at night and on the open sea. They need to sleep in the afternoon so they can be awake at night. A dangerous activity in its own right, fishing becomes more treacherous at night, and it only makes sense that some parents don’t want their children to risk themselves by becoming fishers too.

Enter Reyboy. When Atienza first arrived at Karihatag three years before the filming of Last Days at Sea, Reyboy was a curious and enchanting 9-year-old. Three years later he is about to leave his town to study somewhere else, like many others in his generation. Atienza follows Reyboy during his last days in town, speaking about anything and everything, from his favourite dessert to his fears about leaving his shell, like a helpless crab suddenly thrown into the open air.

Through his testimony Atienza reveals not just the details of a young boy’s mind, but those of a whole generation faced with a transformative force they can’t avoid and the nostalgia of leaving it all behind. This nostalgia is emphasized through the camerawork. Reyboy’s and Atienza’s conversations are usually heard on voice-over, with shots of the sky, the clouds, and the trees, in intense and fiery hues. People are not framed directly, but we gaze at them through branches and leaves that appear swinging in the foreground. There is some kind of spirit, the film seems to tell us, in this geography. Some kind of essence, a perpetual longing set in motion by the presence of the ever-flowing sea. It’s found in other fishing tales, such as Nuria Ibáñez’s 2018 documentary A Wild Stream, Jorge Amado’s 1936 novel Sea of Death or Jonathas de Andrade’s 2016 short film O Peixe. Geography here gives people a certain flavor, a certain way of inhabiting the world.

It is this unattainable essence that Atienza strives to capture in Last Days at Sea. She feels it while being there. She falls under the spell. But can the camera capture it? Can a technological device catch that ghostly presence built upon years and years of living in a territory? Cinema can look at it, describe it, feel it, hint at it, but it appears to fall short when trying to dwell in it. You would just have to be there.