WHO OWNS THE abalone (perlemoen)? Who has a right to poach it? Who doesn’t? Why is it illegal for local South Africans to do so? These important questions lie at the heart of John Gutierrez’s film Sons of the Sea. A circular tale of desperation, death and diving with intent to profit off the west coast of South Africa, it offers a face of political disenfranchisement over centuries: a violent, contemporary face. It streams on DStv BoxOffice from 13 November.
And while the plot of this tale will take you along that coastline, from Kalk Bay down to Simon’s Town, and evoke other stories that have dealt with the rich amalgam of values that living with a skin darker than white but lighter than black can mean, the work itself lacks nuance. Gabriel (Roberto Kyle) is the younger brother of Mikhail (Marlon Swarts). They are orphans, but boys big enough to be foraging their own way in the world. And sometimes in order to make do, they skirt on the other side of the law.
Or is it the other side, in truth? The whole issue of illegalising the poaching of abalone in this area is one rendered messy by over-exploitation and illegal international trade for hundreds of years which conjoins the abalone with drug money and the like. But whose was it to start with? These issues are framed and phrased articulately, against an implicit background of colonialism as the work reaches its angry denouement.
And then there is Peterson (Brandon Daniels), the conservationist with the department of forestry, fisheries and environment with his own broken dreams and intact values, and a cause to address. A dead body of a Chinese stranger manifests in a hotel and the plot gets richer. If you read the director’s comments on the work, there is an underlying symbolism he intended in this film, but replete as it is with a troubling red herring or two, much of the subtler ideas are lost in the face of the conventional thriller lines of the story. In several ways, it recalls Zola Maseko’s Whale Caller, but is stronger in its characterisations and casting.
Three youngsters are at large with a stash big enough to change their future. They are rushing hopelessly through the harsh terrain of the area. They’re pursued by a man with a large gun and a small concussion, who has an alcoholic mother-in-law and a little son at home. And with these two potentially gripping elements, the work runs rather wildly and occasionally carelessly to some beautiful naval wrecks on the beach. And it is there that it takes on the necessary tragic values which bring the child, Adam (Lamar Esau) into the fold as the tale’s haunting twist, which is more about psychological fact and the way the world turns, than fiction.
In its contemplation of the abalone trade, this is a valuable piece. As a storytelling device, it is less successful.
Sons of the Sea is directed by John Gutierrez and features a cast headed by Brendon Daniels, Lamar Esau, Sylvia Esau, Nicole Fortuin, Roberto Kyle and Marlon Swarts. It is written by John Gutierrez. Produced by Khosie Dali, John Gutierrez, Imran Hamdulay and David Horler, it features creative input by Tapiwa Musvosyi (music), Sebastian Cort (cinematography), Imran Hamdulay (production design), Portia Ntobeko Cele (casting), Paul Speirs (editing) and Olivia Galey (costumes). In Afrikaans and English with English subtitles, it streams on DStv BoxOffice from 13 November 2021.