Film Review: Last Days at Sea

Last Days at Sea premiering on Berlinale!

The unfortunate thing about documentaries as a genre is that it gets a bad reputation amongst the general Netflix-watching populace (like me) for being either outdated (see: ancient people/things), monotonous (see: things that don’t immediately cater to the exact cinematic flavour I like), or exclusionary (see: history). 

It’s a downright shame because Last Days at Sea isn’t merely a documentary about the qualms of the seafaring life, but a sincere love letter to Karihatag signed with a flourish by first time director Venice Atienza. It’s an incredibly impressive effort, made even more so by Atienza’s delicate handling of both subject and subject matter. Through her previous personal short films, you can clearly tell her penchant for human-centric stories, which is a weapon she wields arguably well here.

The story unfurls just like a modern fairy tale—therefore avoiding most of the pitfalls of the first two—yet remains as genuine as it is heartwarming in its retelling of 12-year-old Reyboy’s last summer in the space he calls home.

The Philippines can be split into three general groups: Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao. An isolated fishing village, Karihatag is only one of many, many barangays (the smallest political unit in the Philippines) in the Mindanao region. While far from the tiniest, its relatively small population of 1400 means that nearly everyone knows everybody, and even the smallest loss is keenly felt. Each year, school-age children like Reyboy migrate to the city areas for high school, because working with the sea also means accepting the changes that beckon with the ebb and flow of the tide—both good and bad. 

The people of Karihatag belong to the sea, and those who can’t work with the sea go to Manila. With the need to strike a delicate balance between making a living and keeping the sea alive, they’re faced with multiple challenges: the growing unsustainability of aquaculture, migration, and the difficulty of keeping their “heritage” alive. Despite its wide-ranging themes, however, the film doesn't feel lost in its attempt to keep everything afloat. While lacking a proper chronological timeline, the sequence of the film feels almost like a History essay with how structured and logical it flows from A to B.

However, it does teeter heavily on the line of show and tell, occasionally dipping its toes into melodrama in its depictions of the gauzy idyll of sea life and Reyboy's reluctance to leave it. Nevertheless, the careful cinematic handling of Reyboy, a real-life person, not just a character, tampers this tendency somewhat, making it more grounded.

It feels very silly to say that this film has singly changed my life, but the fact is that it has in some way, and I’m better off for it. It’s like waking up one day and seeing everything anew: the light slanting in from the windows casts a cross on the bedspread, the blue of the water as it gurgles overhead, the crunch of pebbles underfoot, smoothed over by the tide. One day Reyboy wakes up and the air feels charged with meaning. Everything is different, even if nothing actually has changed.

Interspersing stills of home, sea and island alongside seemingly candid camera shots following Reyboy’s hands and his family, we’re able to follow along with the platonic intimacy of Atienza and Reyboy’s relationship. Far from a professional actor, the pure joy of his emotions shines through his spirited, child-like actions: our first introduction to him is narrated with a backing track of photographs (some blurry, some candid, some presumably taken by him) that show his clumsy enthusiasm for being in front of the camera.

The scripted parts are also commendable: Atienza lends her voice to the narration but offers us little of the omnipresence of a god-like narrator. Instead, she is someone who is witnessing this slow transformation—of both the space and Reyboy himself, as they prepare for the next part of their lives—alongside us. She offers tidbits on the families, acting as a bridge to navigate each section of the documentary. Guiding us along, like a partial spectre moving through dimensions or an invisible ghostly conductor of snapshots of passing time, now immortalised in film.

Last Days at Sea is one of those rare films where the journey truly feels much more satisfying than the end. As Reyboy might say: It’s like you’ve been wounded but you don’t feel the pain. It’s a cheesy line when taken out of context, but mediated by the subtle call of the waves, the moment feels incredibly poignant. While some might deem it to be overly simplistic or unsubtle, I think the themes of the film, particularly the overall emotional journey that Reyboy undergoes, shines through the accessibility and straightforwardness of the film, and the strength of Reyboy’s “acting”. Fully in-character and true to his own, he laughs, chatters, and makes his way through life on screen—and beyond, into our own hearts.

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Last Days at Sea was part of the Berlin International Film Festival. You can watch the trailer here.

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