Sunbeams refracted through water strongly recalls the image of light refracted by the lens in a film projector into a darkened movie theatre, and vice versa. This linking of film, water, and refracted images is no coincidence, for it constitutes the stunning new work of Kaori Oda. So stunning that verbal description of it is a bit of a fruitless, however well intended, task. What follows, then, are good intentions.
For Cenote, her second “experimental documentary” feature (as she herself describes her work), Oda shot on beautiful Super 8 film and with an iPhone X to conjure a glittering, hypnotic underwater world where Mayan traditions, histories, and legends are delicately coaxed into myriad visual and aural shapes that envelop the viewer for its entire runtime. Oda, who studied with Béla Tarr and obtained a diving license prior to shooting the film, closely wades through the underground bodies of pristine water of northern Yucatán, México called cenotes, or ts’onot in Yucatec Maya, which were created by the erosion of limestone and apparently the sole sources of water of the Mayans in the area during their time. Consequently, as captions early in the film indicate, a cult of worship developed around the cenotes amongst the Mayans, whichpersists to the present day through oral accounts passed down from generation to generation but also buttressed by deaths (intentional or otherwise) that have occurred within the cenotes and bodies never recovered or found: that a cenote constitutes the border between life and (after) death; that it requires sacrificial offerings, oftentimes to make it rain or, in more recent times, to be able to drink its waters during a drought.
But Oda dispenses with the captions once they provide basic information about cenotes and their historical and cultural significance for the Mayans at the film’s beginning. Thereafter, she simply has the images communicate a more immediate, material, and embodied sense of these landscapes and how they, indeed, can become otherworldly ever so subtly once plunged in the waters. Footage thus alternates between life-movement underwater and life-movement on land, including close-ups of locals and scenes of family or community gatherings. Once submerged in the cenote’s waters, do we move from life to (after) death? From present to past to ancient, and the forgotten and unknown? Through extremely deft handling and capturing of and vigilant attention to the infinite degrees of light hitting the water from the sun, camera, or both, registered in constantly shifting angles and positions and varied levels of contrast and brightness, Oda creates a trance viewing experience à la Maya Deren as if one were combing the cenotes with her. Of particular note amongst all of the scintillating imagery are the Janus-faced sequences of a gentle waterfall’s flow into the water from above whose droplets morph into schools of dagger-like fish when viewed from below and through Oda’s camera.
Oda pairs her compelling footage with nearly whispered and incantatory voiceovers sprinkled throughout the film, voiceovers that either recount the aforementioned legends or even embody characters contained within them, culled from the host of interviews that Oda conducted with locals during her trip to Yucatán as well as a ritual performance happened to be taking place while there. Alongside these voiceovers are multiple underwater ambient sounds, most prominently the gurgling of bubbles, and the rather unsettling sound of a bull grunting that actually begins the film and reappears at different points in the runtime. The result not only enhances the feeling that the viewer is in the cenotes but also collapses the different temporalities of ancient, past, and present.
With its constant blurring of ancient Mayan traditions, past events, and present day Yucatán; old Super 8 film and new digital technology via the iPhone; above and below the surface of waters (to the point where underwater could pass for dry land and vice versa), the factual and the folkloric, Oda’s film is very much about transposition. Such transposition is at its most magical during the last third of the film when a voiceover speaks of the dragon creature that, according to legend, is the owner of a little cenote in Uzil that takes a sacrifice every now and then. For the most part, the camera maintains a neutral stance in that it is not set up to represent anyone’s or anything’s perspective. But following the tale of the dragon of the Uzil cenote, as the camera explores its underwater land by trailing after fish or scouring the contours of the land and rock therein, its snaky movement becomes gradually knowing. For at one point during its exploration, the camera subtly captures several persons playing in the water in the background. At first, the camera does not seem to notice this detail, as it continues on its underwater ambling. But when the camera registers the aforementioned persons once again, still from afar and occupying the foreground, it pauses. And continues to pause. And just like that, simply and suddenly, the camera becomes the dragon, perhaps contemplating a sacrifice, while the soundtrack repeats the sound of a bull’s grunting that also become more like growls of a mythical creature.
Rowena Santos Aquino is a Los Angeles-based film lecturer who teaches courses on Asian cinemas, Film History, and Documentary Film. Her scholarship focuses on documentary film histories, productions, and cultures. She has been published in journals such as Transnational Cinemas, Asian Cinema, and LOLA, and in the 2016 anthology Film Music in ‘Minor’ National Cinemas. As a film critic specifically covering Asian cinemas and film festivals. While a Cinema & Media Studies graduate student, she embarked on the path of film criticism by writing for the UCLA-/USC-based Asian/Asian-American popular culture magazine Asia Pacific Arts. After she received her doctorate degree, she began writing for the Toronto-based film website Next Projection and continues to focus on coverage of Asian cinemas and documentary films.