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Surfacing with stories from the sea

Ship thrills: Aside from the Cebu footage, the Filipino-Dutch artist Martha Atienza also filmed in Rotterdam and joined seafarers on an international cargo vessel for several weeks.

“One minute, you will all be eating while the boat is heading to the fishing spot. The engine stops, the anchor drops, cigarettes are lit, gear is put on, cigarettes flicked and they drop and disappear into the dark water,” artist Martha Atienza describes the suddenness with which the compressor divers go about their work. She had been hounding these men to let her come along on their fishing boats since 2003, but women were always considered bad luck. Last year, some of the younger fishermen finally let her tag along on a dawn run. It so happened to storm that morning, and with the rising waves, everyone was soon soaked. But Martha had a big crazy smile on her face, and she was never blamed for any misfortune.

Compressor diving is a dangerous, ingenuous affair. Instead of a regulator that feeds you compressed air from a scuba tank, the divers suck in possibly tainted air through plastic garden hoses pumped by a gas engine using a bottle of Sprite. Instead of flexible rubber fins, they use plywood flippers held to the feet with a piece of inner tubing. A round mask covers their eyes and nose, and a flashlight is attached to the head with a children’s bicycle tire. No wet suits to protect them from the colder depths. They dive down to 50 meters or more, and coming up too fast with their nets often results in a painful, sometimes fatal condition called the bends. Just a few weeks before Martha hopped on board, six divers had been paralyzed from the waist down due to decompression sickness.

To document these men, Martha used very simple equipment herself: just plastic waterproof casing and a little Sony camera for the underwater shots. The resulting piece, titled Gilubong Ang Akong Pusod sa Dagat (“My Navel is Buried in the Sea”) will be shown as a three-screen installation in the place where it was filmed — Madridejos on Bantayan Island in Cebu, where the artist was raised and where her own father was a sea captain. She grew up with these people as classmates and neighbors, but because of the solitary nature of what they do, the risk they undertake daily, or perhaps just the way Filipino men don’t talk about things, they had never shared much about their experiences once they reached shore. “It took a while for them to trust me because they couldn’t understand why I was doing this. To actually just be sincerely interested in their lives is incomprehensible to them.”

Movie night: Martha screens her clips to the barangay in Bantayan. She learned to let go of her usual long shots of daily life and injected a bit of humor and entertainment to the film.

When Martha set up a viewing of some of her clips, it was really the first time for the fishermen and international seafarers to be able to show off what they do to their families. Even the wives were clueless about what their men do at sea. One of them commented, “So that’s what the tubes are for — breathing!” The aim of Martha’s project is to encourage dialogue and self-reflection in the community, and these revelations were certainly a beginning. That which had been unspoken is given a voice through Gilubong — the stories from the sea, on which their survival depends. “A community such as this is a reflection of the Philippines as a whole,” she says. “If we could all just learn from each other and in that sense help one another, we would be a lot better off.”

To look at the life of one fisherman or seafarer is to see the generations before him, who have turned to the sea when they were hungry and in need of a livelihood. But there is nothing terribly romantic about this occupation; many do not have much of a choice, with the little formal education they possess. Starting off as a boatman, then becoming a diver, then owning your own boat is the ideal progression before a fisherman retires and passes it on to his children. Martha adds, “Because the sea has been damaged from local overfishing, foreign boats coming into Philippine waters and human destruction, the risks are increasing since the men have to dive deeper to get their catch.” The battles are different for international seafarers, whose higher incomes have been luring the next generation of men. They have to deal with pirates, drug trafficking, human trafficking, etc., and because they are not allowed to have weapons on board, they resort, again ingeniously, to things like barbed wire, hot engine water and gun sounds to defend themselves.

The DIY diver: Homemade dive apparatus got style, too.

Just recently, Martha witnessed a harang boat ritual, wherein a miriko or local shaman makes an offering of food and gives thanks to the spirits of the sea for her protection and offerings. “They do not feel that they own the sea, they are merely visitors. And when they return to shore, it is a common practice to share their catch with their neighbors. I think we can all learn from this,” she says. Not that all fisherman are respectful to the sea — dynamite and cyanide are still being used by some to get their catch. “That is why I am organizing forums. I believe that if these fishing communities are given the chance to speak, and given the power within the community to take charge, they can stand a chance. They do know what needs to be done.” Their relationship to the sea is inseparably linked to ours — as consumers of the sea’s bounty — and in that sense, we know also what needs to be done.

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Gilubong Ang Akong Pusod Sa Dagat, a video installation and community project by Martha Atienza, will be open on Aug. 17 in Plaza Madridejos, Batayan Island, Cebu. The film was funded by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and Dienst Kunst en Cultuur, Rotterdam, with partners Islands Foundation, Zest Air and UNICEF.

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