Arts Festival

Ode to bodies, perfect in their imperfections

PLUNGING to new depths. A couple of the Londoners who swim, in Greig Coetzee and Jillian Edelstein’s indie doccie ‘The Water Rats’. Photograph courtesy

HOW DID YOU keep body and soul together during the particularly grim days of Covid-19 hard lockdown? Not in terms of putting food on your table, but in terms of holding your spirit in the place where it should be, to keep you buoyant. A group of Londoners – some former South Africans, others from elsewhere on the planet, gravitated towards each other and toward the city’s rivers. To swim. Greig Coetzee and Jill Edelstein tell their story in a remarkable documentary, The Water Rats, which will be screened with introductory talks by both Edelstein and Coetzee at the Lexi Cinema in London, on Monday 11 September 2023.

Clocking in at just 50 minutes, The Water Rats, which debuted at this year’s Hilton Arts Festival in August, is a tonic for the soul. It evokes that memorable scene in James Ivory’s 1985 film A Room with a View in which the men of the tale get to frolic out of the context of social miens for a precious moment. The Water Rats features low hanging bosoms, scarred elderly bodies and scraggly bums as much as it is about the candid and celebratory gesture of stripping down and bearing your soul to like-minded strangers in rivers and streams, puddles and ponds. And above all, it is about seeking the real things in this rapidly transitioning world and holding on tight.

We cannot allow ourselves to forget that during hard lockdown, there were many rules that governed social interaction. Often cruelly. Edelstein’s own heartbreaking reality about the loss of her mother during this time is touched on. And yet, that cheeky gesture of leaping over the fence at night, like naughty teenagers on a dare, with a bunch of acquaintances for the simple act of immersion in live water, illegal and punishable though it was, was an essential gesture for so many – certainly those willing to be part of this film. There are individuals here who will make you think of the kinds of feisty, never-say-no characters that Ruth Gordon played in her latter years – such as Rosemary’s Baby and Harold and Maude – and an ethos of a 1980s club dynamic that will bring nostalgic sparkles of how social interaction used to be.

“I met Ahmed at the Serpentine,” is an unforgettable line in this unique work, that evokes a whole range of contextual possibilities. And yet it is about a middle-aged Jewish woman doing her daily illegal swim in the Serpentine River, with a bloke by the name of Ahmed, who hails from Gaza. And yes, politics is tossed into the mix, like a handful of dry leaves, but it doesn’t muddy the waters. This is a piece created with deep poignancy and sophisticated levity and in the gaps between the words, a whole narrative about being in the world during a time of massive crisis, is allowed to unfold. The Water Rats is a project produced on a whim and a minuscule budget but one that bears important testimony to how a pandemic touched us and made us rethink our humanity.

The Water Rats is directed by Jillian Edelstein and edited by Greig Coetzee. It features cinematography, by Jillian Edelstein and production by Jillian Edelstein and Greig Coetzee. It will be screened on Screen 1 the Lexi Cinema, 194b Chamberlayne Road, London, on Monday 11 September 2023 at 18:30.

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