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BFI London Film Festival 2020 Review - THE SALT IN OUR WATERS

the salt in our waters review
A young artist relocates to coastal Bangladesh to practice his art, but in doing so up-turns the local community's age-old customs and taboos.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Rezwan Shahriar Sumit

Starring: Titas Zia, Fazlur Rahman Babu, Shatabdi Wadud, Tasnova Tamanna, Ashok Bepari


I used to work in the field of artist residencies and let me just say, I never imagined that a film about an artist residency would be so interesting until I saw the Bangladeshi drama The Salt in Our Waters. All it took for me to realise that was looking beyond the European art scene, as Rezwan Shahriar Sumit’s debut feature flourishes due to the distinctive cultural lens through which he examines the cross-section between art, nature and religion.

the salt in our waters review

Curly-haired, bespectacled artist Rudro (Titas Zia, who holds a passing resemblance to India’s Vicky Kaushal and may have his own Masaan here) is a sculptor with an interest in depicting women (among the several busts he carries in a crate is one of his mother). He arrives from the city to a remote coastal fishing village and finds his live/work space in a small hut, rented for an indefinite period of time.


It doesn’t take long for trouble to begin. The local community is headed by a tough man referred to as the Chairman (native star Fazlar Rahman Babu), who resents Rudro for his influence over the children, who divert their attention from the Chairman’s life lessons to spending time creating with Rudro. The Chairman and Rudro have their equivalent of the first meeting between Bruce Greenwood and Ian Holm’s characters in The Sweet Hereafter, in which the fiercely conservative village leader makes it clear that his people aren’t just some bumpkins who Rudro can put the big city hustle on. He states that Rudro’s artwork is impermissible because it represents idolatry, one of the biggest sins in Islam.

the salt in our waters review

Rudro can handle the polarising reception to his artwork but is more distraught about the environmental concerns plaguing the village. Due to climate change, the flux of ilish fish threatens the community’s survival, for they have few other ways to obtain food. The dichotomy between humans and nature in conservation practises is a topic deftly explored in the documentaries The Islands and the Whales and Of Fish and Foe. Those documentaries saw such village people pitted against human rights activists, who were typically from cities and therefore quite ignorant to the fact that such citizens didn’t have access to the same resources.


In The Salt in Our Waters, the judgements on an insular lifestyle are a little more nuanced, at least. When things go wrong, it’s seen by some villagers as the curse of Rudro, whereas the artist himself believes it’s just the course of nature. It just takes one good - or bad - day for either theory to be disproved in the eyes of everyone. Only one thing is palpable throughout the wars between the Chairman’s hive mind and Rudro’s global warming preachments and that’s that the weather cycle has no prejudices or preferences towards anyone. While I think the filmmaker is on Rudro’s side, I’m convinced that there’s a broader political implication regarding the subcontinental fishing industry that unfortunately isn’t given room to explore.

the salt in our waters review

It all makes for immersive drama, anchored by the gripping performances of the cast and a naturalistic approach to filming by cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj, who affords to give a day off to filters because nature does all the heavy lifting. The filmmaker’s writing is sturdy and pointed, and he’s written three intriguing characters in the protagonist, the Chairman, and the latter’s daughter Tuni (Tasnova Tamanna). The quietest person in the male-dominated sphere, Tuni’s persona is effectively brought to the foreground when Rudro takes residence, as she falls in love with him but understands the distance needed to be kept. She expresses her history and her hopes fairly easily to Rudro, though she also warns him that she will not be just another subject of his sculpting desires.

The odyssey of Rudro and the fishermen gives into the occasional storytelling cliché but to have created a fascinating drama rooted in a deep cultural context, and to thoughtfully consider the big questions around the traditions of the old world versus the concerns of the new world, feels like a breakthrough moment for this emerging filmmaker.

The Salt in Our Waters played as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2020.

2020 movie reviews