Water has many practical and symbolic meanings, across cultures, geographies and identities. As part of the 2022 Brighton Fringe, I had the joy of collaborating on behalf of the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics, with Lilith Film Club (formerly Lilith Archive) to explore these meanings. Lilith Film Club platforms the brilliant diversity of global women and non-binary filmmakers and moving image artists, exploring themes around ‘nature’. They kindly selected 3 short films for us to screen: Sororelle, Dive Tierra Bomba Dive, and Summer Shade. We held the event on ONCA’s barge in the Brighton marina – a fitting venue to immerse ourselves literally and figuratively in water.

We chose the theme of water because of Brighton’s proximity to the sea, as well as the increasing threat and reality of water insecurity and flooding due to the climate crisis. Through the workshop, we wanted to facilitate a deeper engagement with the different qualities of water. We created space for emotional connection and reflection, and a deeper understanding of the political, practical and symbolic significance of water in the lives of ourselves and others. We did this through the choice of films and facilitating discussions between screenings.

Image still from Sororelle (2019)

We greeted our attendees onto the sea with Hiroshi Yoshimura’s Wet Land in the background to get everyone in the mood. After a brief round of introductions, the first film was screened: Sororelle (2019). This is a short stop-motion animation by French filmmakers Louise Mercadier and Frédéric Even. Three sisters face a looming natural disaster in the form of a flooding of land by the sea. Each sister has a different emotional and embodied response to the flood – the presence of water was both healing and abrasive in the same shot. We deliberately screened this film first because of the abstractness of the animation and the natural disaster, and the emotional qualities of the film. We discussed how in the UK, there is often a perception of climate change as something distant that hasn’t reached these shores yet. But this was complicated by people sharing stories of flooding across England – someone in the audience’s family home now reliably floods every year. We unpacked the attachments to place that make people stay somewhere even though it is being destroyed or threatened by floods. Is it hardiness that makes people stay, or is it the strength of belonging and a sense of home? Watching Sororelle together created a space to collectively explore and hold tensions that helped people navigate their own contradictory feelings.

film still from Dive Tierra Bomba Dive (2020)

Image still from Dive Tierra Bomba Dive (2020)

The second short film we screened was Dive Tierra Bomba Dive (2020), made by The Right To Roam Films. This is a documentary located on the island of Tierra Bomba off the northern coast of Colombia, where 19-year-old Yassandra Barrios is fighting for the protection of her local reef. She is studying marine biology and is acutely aware of the dangers posed to the island’s ecosystems by fishing and shipping industries. She organises meetings with older fishermen on the island to raise awareness of these threats and urge action to be taken. The discussion after viewing this short film was one grounded in respect for Yassandra and the organising she is doing as a young woman surrounded by older male fishermen. A key theme we discussed was agency, be it Yassandra’s, the fishermens’, or the heads of corporate businesses that accelerate the destruction of the reef. This consideration of varying degrees of agency led the conversation to activism, where we landed on the rights of nature. Differing opinions on what constitutes ‘nature’ has led to the generation of certain rights and legalities to protect it. Maintaining that a river is alive, animate and an essential part of existence and livelihoods, allows governing bodies to enshrine a healthy and respected existence for ecosystems (look at what happened in Ecuador!). This brings the practice of resource extraction to mind and how the production of renewable resources can perpetuate the commodification of minerals and materials, that accumulate wealth in countries like Britain – a pressing point raised by the Centre’s very own Louise Purbrick.

film still from Summer Shade (2020)

Image still from Summer Shade (2020)

Finally we screened Summer Shade (2020) by Israeli filmmaker Shira Haimovici. Arguably the most contentious of the three films, and based on real life, it shows a confrontation between a teenage girl (Gal) and a group of ultra-orthodox Hassidic Jewish boys. There is an aggressive dispute over access to a natural pool, which can be used for bathing and purification rituals as part of orthodox and non-orthodox Jewish practices. Gendered and sexualising intimidation tactics are used by the boys in an attempt to shame Gal into leaving the pool. The confrontation that plays out conveys water as a site fraught with social power dynamics and tensions between religion and gender.

The conversation that followed was interesting – one audience member tried to sever gender and religion from water in an effort to discuss the film. This decision in itself prompted the questioning of whether these dynamics can be considered in isolation at all. Are social dimensions intrinsic to experiences of water? Women in the audience spoke up about feeling watched, vulnerable or sexualised when wearing swimwear. Analyses of power and expectations gave way to the exchanging of stories about local connections to Brighton’s sea. People discussed their favourite activities and seasons to be in, or just near to, the sea. Feelings about the sea’s presences came to the fore and the differences and similarities of people’s emotions was beautiful.

Thank you to SECP for funding this event and to ONCA for hosting us on their barge.

Written by Laura Mitchell, first year doctoral researcher at the Centre for Spatial, Environmental and Cultural Politics (SECP)