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PAFF Review: ‘The Fisherman’s Diary’ Is a Maudlin Message Movie

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.

SCORE: ★1/2

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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  1. I just watched the movie and I think your review is spot on. Thank you. I didn’t feel like Ekah ‘won’. I feel saddened by the fact that there are many more Ekahs out there who may never get out of this cycle of ignorance.

  2. Just saw the movie and I respectfully think you miss the point. You’re entitled to prefer a more emotionally uplifting recipe of emotions and intellectual rigor in your story telling. I certainly enjoy that, too. But this tale of transcendence is entitled to focus the audience’s attention on merely that, without being a fair survey of the community’s philosophical diversity or worse pedantic praises of education’s virtue. Attempting to do so would be turning the movie into a investigative after-school special and letting the audience ‘off the ride’ with Ekah, who was deprived all that fairness and perspective too. Those scenes where people were talking down education weren’t simply forced exposition, but how the reactionary corners of a society genuinely processes social changes…with all its overdone ideological protestations in the public square. (And if to understand her father’s attitude toward educated women we’re given the image of educated snobbery, well then perhaps that’s the most urgent reminder educated audiences need to see, anyway.)

    If by the end of the movie I’m emotionally exhausted and expecting the maudlin finale to reach the tragic summits of melodramatic climax…and in a state of shock to see Ekah survive and advocate for herself…well I can then say this is where I stop identifying with the character because she has something at her age that I simply couldn’t imagine in her circumstances. I, along with I think most audiences, had abandoned hope for her a ways back. That she survived with her drive intact speaks to her heroism that I would have lacked. Survival doesn’t come with a reprieve from the trauma overcome getting there, and it’s to the movie’s credit that it doesn’t pretend otherwise. Despite the reliance on cheesy music to carry the narrative, the filmmaker respects Ekah enough not to throw cheesy emotional notes over her emergence, and the audience is *not* invited to emotionally distract themselves from the scars she takes with her.

    This is a survival story, and survival is ugly. Nuance and objectivity are beautiful growths that come after the fire. Nuance and objectivity are now within Ekah’s grasp. They are a privilege to us, the audience, we have never come close to earning as she has. As those like her who did survive striving for what’s given to us so easily now.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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