▶︎ The Salt in Our Waters screens in the BFI London Film Festival until 17 October on BFI Player.
What’s in the box? This is the question with which The Salt in Our Waters, the debut feature of Bangladeshi writer-director-producer Rezwan Shahriar Sumit, teases its audience during its brisk opening scenes. The box in question is a giant wooden shipping container, a conspicuous consignment on a voyage from the teeming ports of a dense Bangladeshi city deep into the Ganges Delta.
Our curiosity is vocalised by one of the boat’s patrons, a fishmonger selling his wares to other voyagers with a wink and a grin. “What do you have inside?” he enquires. Our protagonist, a bearded and bespectacled artist by the name of Rudro (Titas Zia), gives us an answer: “My universe.”
It’s a delightfully prosaic response. Rudro may be an idealistic artist, perhaps a little out of touch, but he’ll soon be jolted back to reality. His boat, including his universe-filled box, touches down at a tiny fishing village to which he is tenuously connected through his late father. For him, it is intended as a reclusive retreat, a chance to return to nature. For the village’s inhabitants, however, nature is all too present.
Culture clashes abound, beginning with Rudro’s insistence on tipping and the villagers’ equally fervent refusal. (This is a smart contrast to the film’s opening scene, in which a hard-hatted port official delays loading Rudro’s shipping container until he is appropriately compensated.)
Rather than Rudro being out of his depth and struggling to cope without home comforts, it is his progressive values which cause conflict. He immediately sparks concern amongst the male townsfolk when he breaks a taboo by openly and respectfully speaking to the village’s women – particular attention is paid to the striking and defiant Tuni (an excellent performance by Tasnova Tamanna).
When Rudro opens his shipping container and removes its contents – sculptures and materials for future works – the locals’ hostility becomes more palpable: they believe that these ‘idols’ are the reason for their poor fishing hauls of recent.
Herein lies the film’s most interesting duality. Whereas Rudro, as a relatively well-off artist, lives with the natural world existing as a concept hidden behind a layer of abstraction, for the rest of the village nature is their livelihoods and could be their death. The fraught fishing excursions that the menfolk take, with rickety boats bouncing against the waves, make for stressful viewing – when Rudro vomits violently into the sea it doesn’t look as though Titas Zia is having to act.
The Bangladeshi coast is undeniably beautiful but is shot without glamour, a decision which neatly moves the audience away from Rudro’s privileged point of view and in tune with the rhythms of the village. Muddy water and overcast skies foreground the threat of flooding and cyclones that make the village’s future uncertain. When the winds pick up in the film’s climactic scenes it finally seems as though Rudro’s perspective has changed too.