When you think of fishing, you’re probably thinking of either a laidback pastime where you hope to bring back a big one or at least a tale about the big one that got away or you might be thinking along the lines of Discovery’s “Deadliest Catch.” That’s a world away both geographically and technologically from the world of Rakesh and Ganesh, the focus of director Sarvnik Kaur’s documentary, “Against the Tide,” which won the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Vérité Filmmaking.
Rakesh and Ganesh are both of the Koli caste and fishing is part of their traditional occupation in Mumbai. The years of tradition weigh heavily upon them. The 30-year-old Rakesh has inherited his father’s boat and continues to fish according to tradition. Kaur gives us insight into this from the beginning when the camera focuses in on an infant set on the mother’s bare legs as he’s anointed while the mother asks that her son be protected. In the traditional world, a fisherman doesn’t have much more than his skin and his faith to protect him against the ocean. Kaur provides a chant of hope and faith: “Tides turn; fear not” because “a Koli knows no fear.” The saying is, “Remember you’re a Koli; you fear nothing.”
Yet from an outsider’s view there is much to fear, from setting out on the waves of an unforgiving ocean in a rickety boat to the competition with the progress. Ganesh argues with Rakesh, a man with whom he’s grown up with and has been closer than most brothers. The 32-year-old Ganesh leans into what technology he can afford. He believes that he can track tuna using satellite technology.
The two and the Koli who follow the calling of their ancestors also compete against the Chinese who are “plundering the seas with LEDs” and the abstraction of climate change. Fishing methods have changed and Ganesh throws out terms like bottom-trawling, purse seine fishing and LED fishing, asking his friend why he still adheres to a tradition centuries old, asking will you ban such things and hope will you stop climate change.
Another Koli advises, “We should control our greed and just trust the ancestors.” Certainly technology and greed combined are toxic. Together those two things are threatening not only the Koli economics, but also the environment on a large scale.
Kaur brings you into the homes and boats of these two men. We experience their harsh life and struggles, but these are not things that are totally being ignored. Although Kaur doesn’t point this out, fishing was one of the topics of President Joe Biden’s Asia trip in May 2022. The US, Japan, Australia and India have an initiative that hopes to curb illegal fishing in the Indo-Pacific area which is primarily targeting mainland China. According to the Financial Times (21 May 2022):
“China has become the world’s largest perpetrator of illegal fishing,” said Charles Edel, Australia chair at CSIS, a think-tank. “They have drastically depleted global fish stocks and undermined traditional livelihoods of many countries, so any steps taken to track, identify and curb such activity would have environmental and security benefits for the region.”
The official White House Fact Sheet called the initiative, the Indo-Pacific Partnership for Maritime Domain Awareness (IPMDA).
The Quad countries pledge to promote an Indo-Pacific region that is ‘undaunted by coercion’ (27 September 2021)
Kaur has refrained from bringing in high level political actions into this mix. By focusing on two Koli men being pulled apart by their differing views, but held together by affection and familial concerns, Kaur has personalized the concerns that four nations are struggling with and provided a warning against adhering to tradition, against greed and against forgetting how our actions affect each other.
“Against the Tide” premiered at Sundance 2023. In Koli, Marathi and Hindi with English subtitles. Running time: 97 minutes.