Extending from a tradition that is thousands of years old, the Ama-San dive for oysters, abalone and other maritime delicacies with nothing else but a pair of goggles and a single breath. Set within the competing pressures of modern-life, Cláudia Varejão’s intimate portrait of these women, Ama-San is a slice of life that documents the remaining divers’ lives and their commitment to a venerable tradition.
Ama-San is a disarming documentary. Shorn of any pretence or storytelling contrivance, Cláudia Varejão’s film is a simple reflection that mirrors the ways of the women themselves. Juggling motherhood and family commitments, the Ama (or “women-of-the-sea”) are a tightly-knit community whose lives intersect way beyond the workplace. Rather than a collection of workers, to be an Ama is to be part of an extended family. With the divers living and working well into their eighties, the Ama-San enjoy a maternal support system on-land as well as off.
Shot at Wagu, a fishing village in the Ise peninsula, Ama’s Matsumi and Masumi never know what each dive will bring. In a tradition that has been previously handed down from mother to daughter, is the life of an Ama-San a sustainable future for their children?
Set aside from the capricious nature of the seeking out of abalone, is the creeping presence of modernity. Gone are the semi-transparent nude bodies that so characterised their ancestors, seen in movies like You Only Live Twice. Now, insulated with modern-day wet suits, Matsumi and Masumi still dive wearing their body-length cotton dresses in a bid to dissuade curious sharks.
Mirroring the ladies’ commitment to their craft, Ama-San is a photogenic, social document with an intentional lack of pretence. As the women are expected to survive on a lungful of air, you the cinema-goer must contend without narration, interview, on-screen graphics or even a score with which to guide you. Instead, this is movie-going where are lives lived at a slow-pace, without melodrama or intrigue.
Ultimately, Ama-San is a documentary without a burning issue or compelling call-to-arms. However, if you want to see the unvarnished world of the Ama-San through the eyes of its last-remaining practitioners, then Cláudia Varejão’s respectful documentary is how to do it.
Ama-San | Directed by Cláudia Varejão (Portugal / Japan, 2016), with Matsumi Koiso, Mayumi Mitsuhashi, Masumi Shibahara. Starts Oct 3.
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