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Review: Between The Devil And The Deep

BY JOSH WHITE

Documentary is a medium which involves exposure to shocking truths and raw unforced emotion. Viewers are allowed a free pass into the lives of ordinary people and can experience parts of the world they might not have known existed. Between the Devil and the Deep, a 2015 production directed by Heinrich Dahms, achieves these various effects in a stark and beautiful way.

Between the Devil and the Deep centres on citizens of the fishing village of Hawston in the Western Cape. Tim and Genine Figaji are mourning their only son, Steven, who has been dead for a year and six months. That the cause of death is claimed to be drowning seems to contradict the various physical injuries Steven suffered on the day of his death, and the Figaji’s search for truth and justice forms the most emotional part of the documentary’s narrative. Ellen and Staggie are the second couple in focus. They have one son, their first having died in a cot death. We are made privy to Ellen’s psychological turmoil as she copes with her grief and her husband’s crystal meth addiction. Staggie is also a fisherman who is friends with the diver Sherman, the film’s fifth protagonist.

At the crux of these people’s intertwined stories is the illegal harvesting of abalones, or perlemoen, off the coast of the Western Cape, a means of survival for the fisherman whose fishing quotas have been cut. Steven’s death occurred during his arrest for “poaching” perlemoen, and in one enthralling scene we are witness to a confrontation between Sherman and police officers at sea. The narrative is permeated with references to a history of police brutality within Hawston, as well as their profiting from the acquisition of harvested abalones. The film is not just an account of troubled lives in a small town. It is an indictment of a brand of corruption and exploitation seldom confronted in the media.

What makes this film so captivating is that it seems to bridge the gap between the standard documentary and the realistic narrative. The filmmakers never speak, and there is no sense that the subjects are being interviewed. They are allowed to tell their own stories in their own way, and there seems to be no actual distance between them and the viewer. Ellen’s fleeting decision to leave her husband and Genine’s recitation of Edward A. Guest’s “Miss Me but Let Me Go” are two extremely poignant and cathartic moments. Religion is an important factor in the lives of these citizens, and the film is book-ended by and permeated with songs of worship.

Between the Devil and the Deep is beautifully filmed. The stark shots of Hawston’s beach accentuate the frankness of the film’s narrative, while the underwater camera work offers a captivating departure from that starkness. We are witness to the actual harvesting while a seal dances about, a shark glides by and a crustacean hides itself beneath the rocks.

The film’s focus does jump around a bit, so the viewer’s concentration on one aspect might be broken quite often, but the importance of this documentary is not merely due to the stories themselves. Between the Devil and the Deep presents a microcosm of communal experience in which the universal themes of corruption, inner turmoil, justice, survival and hope all collide against a gorgeous natural backdrop. This is sterling film making, and how great that it is South African.

 

Josh White is a Masters student who has had an avid interest in film since childhood. He has written Arts and Entertainment pieces for numerous publications. He is currently in the process of starting a film blog.

 

 

The 36th Durban International Film Festival (DIFF) is organised by the Centre for Creative Arts at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (a special project of the Deputy Vice Chancellor of Humanities, Cheryl Potgieter) with support from the National Film and Video Foundation, , KwaZulu-Natal Film Commission, City of Durban, German Embassy, Goethe Institut, Industrial Development Corporation, Gauteng Film Commission, KwaZulu-Natal Department of Arts and Culture and a range of other valued partners.

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