As much as we may deny it, we always bring our own subjective worldviews and experiences to the movies we watch and how receive them. The task of the filmmaker therefore, is to use their storytelling skills to generate empathy for people and worlds that are unlike our own. Such is the challenge posed to Cameroonian director Enah Johnscot for his drama The Fisherman’s Diary. Inspired by true events, it tells the story of a young girl determined to defy her village’s archaic views on women’s education, as she aspires to attend her local school. But though her feminist ambitions fuel this story, this message movie struggles to articulate the honorable statement it tries to make.
The Fisherman’s Diary follows Ekah, a 12-year old who is destined to follow in her fisherman father’s footsteps. Despite her young age, she is already seasoned in a business which provides the main source of income for many in her village. Following the death of her mother, however, she sets her sights on another path, hoping to pursue an education like her mother before her. But the people around her view women’s education as taboo and pointless, including her father and uncle. Despite their stern discouragement, Ekah decides to secretly follow her dreams, motivated by a leaflet of the famous women’s education activist Malala and the school’s female teacher Bihbih.
The Fisherman’s Diary follows in the vein of boundary-breaking and children-centric films like Wadjda and Queen of Katwe, exploring how girls and underprivileged children fight to overcome the hurdles of societal restrictions and expectations. But where those works favored subtlety and warmth, The Fisherman’s Diary chooses a melodramatic approach that often detracts from the story it’s trying to tell. In the opening scenes, we see several conversations where characters randomly explain that women’s education is useless and extol the virtues of a humble life of fishing. Yet rather than feeling organic to everyday conversations, these unprompted speeches and debates feel forced, as if these characters are trying to convince themselves of a supposedly longstanding belief.
To further reinforce the oppressive environment facing Ekah, the film relies on over-the-top sound effects and on-the-noise music cues with lyrics like “I feel like giving up”. But the narrative lacks the nuance to give a truly in-depth understanding of the village’s dynamics. While female education is shunned, we don’t get to see the perspective of those families who have chosen to send their girls to school, seemingly without persecution.
The most confounding aspect of the script, however, is the unfavorable case it makes for education in general. In the case of Ekah’s mother, education made her a callous snob and hardly lifted her from poverty. Meanwhile, the children who attend the school can barely even spell their name, despite a teacher who is portrayed as competent and passionate. To make matters worse, the spineless headmaster discourages Ekah’s education in fear of retaliation from villagers. And he is just one of a cadre of men characters who are exhaustingly ignorant and pathetic.
It’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that the film ends on an optimistic note for Ekah. But over the course of its lengthy 2 hour and 23 minute run time, The Fisherman’s Diary sends various mixed messages that raise unanswered, fundamental questions. Is education indeed worthless in this context if the children aren’t learning and graduates are unable to improve their lives? Is Ekah just a one-off prodigy unlikely to be replicated? There’s no doubt that success stories from underprivileged communities deserve to be told. But despite this film’s maudlin efforts, it fails to deliver its intended message of hope.