I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Sea-gypsies, Vodou, and ethnographic documentary.
Olivia Wyatt and I met not too long ago when we were cast as husband and wife in a film directed by Rick Alverson. The working title of the film was Rabbit, and as of this writing the film has not been finished. Olivia and I bonded and remained in touch. I will try to illustrate Olivia’s charisma with this anecdote: Once when Olivia was visiting Louisville, Kentucky, I told her to go to our grand old historic cemetery as a way to pass the time. She walked the few miles there, then befriended the guard at the gate. He lent her his car to tour the cemetery. Then he said he’d come to her screening that night.
Olivia’s experiential feature documentaries, distributed by Sublime Frequencies, include Staring into the Sun, about Ethiopian music, and The Pierced Heart & The Machete, an incredible document of Haitian Vodou ceremonies. She had told me of her plans for this new project about the Moken … and then Hurricane Sandy happened. Olivia lost a significant portion of her equipment to Sandy. She was going to indefinitely postpone the trip that would yield Sailing a Sinking Sea. I helped facilitate getting her gear replaced, thus getting the project back on track.
Below is a conversation we had recently, in which I got to pick her brain about the new film, which is an abstract exploration of a community of people who live in the waters along the Thai-Burmese border, about her collaboration with Bitchin Bajas’ Cooper Crain on the film’s music, and about her plans for projects to come.
Will Oldham This is just like how we first met.
Olivia Wyatt In the snow?
WO No, over Skype.
OW Oh, that’s right.
WO Did we attempt to have weekly appointments, is that what we tried to do?
OW I think we did have weekly appointments but I missed one of the weeks. That was a no-no; I got a phone call from Rick.
WO We were attempting to create a bond so we could, as improvising actors, fool people into thinking that we knew each other well enough, because we were supposed to be married transient people.
OW Actually, Rick emailed me the other day that he’s been editing it again.
WO That’s so great.
OW I hope he finishes it. How’s the tattoo of the anchor that I gave you?
WO It’s good, so much nicer. It was so half-ass before, so it’s nice to have a more finished tattoo. I wish Rick would edit it though, just because.
OW Everyone put a lot of energy into it. It seems silly for it not to be out in the world.
WO I agree. I want to see some of it.
OW I hope the ukulele scene gets cut though.
WO What happens in the ukulele scene?
OW You and I had to get really stoned, then have a conversation about black holes. They kept the recorders running and we were making up a song.
WO What was the song like?
OW It was called “Why Oh Why am I So High?” and then just anything that rhymed with “high” from there.
WO (laughter) And we were high outside blowing bubbles. That was such a jam-packed little event, so much going on.
OW And we saw alien petroglyphs.
WO How long ago was that?
OW Four years ago?
WO Now I feel as though, in a variety of ways, our lives have intertwined. It was a strange and really challenging time, and marginally traumatic too. But it was an experience for which I’d trade nothing because, in so many ways, it has positively affected the course of my activities and history. I’m glad it happened. And you knew Colm O’Leary [an actor in several of Rick Alverson’s films] already, right?
OW I’m glad it happened too. Mostly because it was life-altering meeting you, and I think perhaps we must have known each other in a past life. Yeah, so Colm was my neighbor in Rockaway. We were friends and there was this little ceremony that was happening—the Celestial Church of Christ. Do you know of the Celestial Church of Christ?
WO I don’t think so.
OW The religion is from the Western coast of Africa. The story goes that this man was wandering for forty days and forty nights in the forest, just like Jesus. And I think Jesus came down and spoke to him, then he started this religion. There’s possession involved. It’s really beautiful; everyone wears all white. There was a ceremony happening for the whole month of October every night from 10 PM until sunrise, so I went out every night and shot it. One night I was walking to the beach and Colm was on his porch with Rick. That’s where we met. I didn’t remember Rick really, but I got a phone call three years later saying, “Remember my friend Rick? He wants to know if you’ll be a part of this project.” I still don’t really know Rick.
WO I haven’t seen him since that Vermont shoot. Weirdly and wonderfully, a bond began with Colm’s brother Eamon that has been carried forward, and I know that it’s loaded by the artificial relationship that I had to create with Colm in the two movies we did together. All of a sudden I meet his brother and—they sort of look alike and speak alike—it was like, “Oh, I can just put all of this manufactured affection into this person who I actually have a lot in common with,” because he’s a musician, and we can carry forward with this relationship. It’s not like a normal acting part where you have to throw the relationship out. I can actually keep it open.
But, around that same time, you just finished the Ethiopian film …
OW Yeah, I had just finished Staring into the Sun.
WO How long did it take after shooting to get it out into the world?
OW A year and a half, or two years. The editing was done, but we were piecing together the book, which took a lot longer. Then that summer I went to Haiti for the next project, The Pierced Heart & The Machete.
WO How did you begin to know you were going to Haiti? Was it an idea that came from you or someone else? What did you know about Haiti before going there?
OW I had been studying Haitian music since I moved to New York. There was a Haitian master drummer who I met at a Vodou ceremony in a basement in Brooklyn. He actually taught at Hunter College.
WO Who took you to the basement ceremony?
OW I sought it out. It took me about a month. I knew that New York had the largest population of Haitian immigrants in the States. I had studied Yoruba in school and really wanted to experience it firsthand. I got invited by someone in the community who I met while I was going around and researching and asking questions.
WO So you started going there, and through what you experienced and learned there, you realized you wanted to go to Haiti for the specific festivals. Are they called festivals?
OW There were two pilgrimages: one for a male deity and one for a female diety from the Vodou pantheon. They happen back to back each year.
The pilgrimage for Ezili Danto I really wanted to check out, because the story is so fascinating. The Virgin Mary kept appearing in this palm tree near a Catholic church. The priest had announced that she had appeared. Believers in Catholicism came and were leaving gifts near the tree, but also people who believed in Vodou were leaving gifts for Ezili Danto, who is associated with the Virgin Mary. So the priest, fearing idolatry, cut the tree down and the Virgin kept moving from palm tree to palm tree until he cut the last tree in the area down. As the last tree fell, the Virgin turned into a dove and flew to a nearby waterfall. In the pilgrimage, everyone comes to the town where the church is and they celebrate, then they go to the waterfall.
WO The presentation of Staring into the Sun—the book and CD with musical selections in addition to the DVD—was pretty nice. Did you think about doing that with the Haitian one?
OW No. I don’t know why I didn’t make it multimedia. I didn’t create Sailing a Sinking Sea that way either. But Bitchin Bajas composed a score for this project, and we did a previous collaboration—a vinyl LP DVD split release called Vibraquatic. I would like to do something similar with this project as well.
WO Music is a significant part of this film, but it’s not as crucial as in the previous films in terms of the content. The way my brain works when I hear music in any film, whether it’s a narrative film or a documentary, is that immediately my brain splits and goes in two different directions. One part is trying to follow the film and one part is trying to follow the music, which is one reason I have big issues with the way music is used in movies. Sometimes it’s not fun to have that split, and sometimes it is. In this case, I just remember that when I was watching the cut last night there was a point in which there was music that was blowing my mind, and I started to focus on that music—for a couple of minutes probably—and I was not paying attention at that moment to what was happening visually. It was just sort of—not a guitar, but a very simple, spare, string instrument.
OW That might have been something that Bitchin Bajas did because, though the Moken used to regularly play a coconut guitar, I wasn’t able to document any performances. I went to so many islands looking for this coconut guitar and someone who would play it. I ended up in Myanmar still on the hunt, and when I got there, they were like, “It was just stolen three months ago.” That was their last coconut guitar from what I could gather. They even had it on this ceremonial altar and someone took it from the altar.
WO Who would steal a coconut guitar?
OW I have no idea. They said it was stolen during the Labong ceremony that happened on their island. The Labong ceremony does get rather wild, so I can see how a coconut guitar might go missing.
WO How many folks hang around that island? Is it a semipermanent home?
OW Nowadays the homes are mostly permanent. There are less nomadic families these days. That was another thing I searched for, just like the coconut guitar. I only found two nomadic families who used their house on land the way that homes were used traditionally, which was only during monsoon season. The rest of the time they were living nomadically on their boats with their families and fishing and going to islands occasionally, just to collect food from land.
WO So you think maybe this string-instrument music I heard was created by Bitchin Bajas?
OW Yeah. Is it right after the marriage section?
WO I can’t remember. It really does occupy a separate space in my brain.
OW So did it take you out? It took you out.
WO It took me out, but I’ve known for years now that it’s just a way I experience music sometimes in films. Most people don’t think that way though, so that’s good. I feel fortunate that Cooper Crain seems to have a powerful effect on me when he’s making music. I appreciate it.
OW (laughter) I like the music he creates. They did a great job. We had fun and did it in a weekend at Cooper’s house in Chicago. I would say things like “Make it sparkly here!” and they’d add sparkles. It was just a really nice collaboration.
WO Where did you meet Cooper?
OW I met Cooper in Columbia, Missouri. I worked with his girlfriend at the time on a vineyard. It’s actually one of the oldest vineyards in that part of the country, called Les Bourgeois. That was in college in 2004.
WO Wow, so you’ve known Cooper for a long time. Was he making music back then?
OW He was always making music. I think he was still in his teens when I met him, maybe seventeen. At that time, the age difference seemed so vast. He was always the best musician in town and everyone wanted to play with him. He had a metal band called Warhammer 48k. I sang for them once and we did this whole reenactment on stage of a local murder—a policeman had just killed his gay student lover. It was tragic.
WO Did you improvise lyrics?
OW I just repeated, “Black clouds raining blood on me,” in a really deep, scary voice.
WO After Haiti, did you end that and begin to look at the world? How did you get from that project to this one? Where did you hear about the Moken?
OW I first read about them after the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. I read they all survived the tsunami because of their mythology. It took everyone else in that area by surprise; no one else predicted it. To me, it’s really powerful when people live so close to nature that they have a symbiotic relationship with it. They understand it on this level nobody else can. Some people spend a lifetime studying a particular part of nature and still don’t understand it as well as somebody who lives in harmony with it.
WO There are definitely a few lines directed toward the tsunami. Did you have that conversation multiple times with people while you were there?
OW I did, and it’s interesting because it was almost like it wasn’t something they had thought about. A lot of people had forgotten some of the details. They would say “Oh, it was so long ago.” The tsunami was just something they had been expecting and anticipating their whole lives. Their ancestors warned them about giant waves and explained how to survive when they came. The Moken were always observing, looking for changes in the tides and waves.
My whole purpose in this film was to explore their mythology, which is what saved them from the tsunami. I think some people have issues with the lack of information I have about the tsunami, but again, that wasn’t the focus. Every island I went to, I asked about the tsunami and I got different responses everywhere I went. One island was closer to land, where you might not see so much change in the tides, and they saw the ants acting funny, doing things that red ants had never done, so they went to high land. At a place further out at sea, the shaman had been dreaming for weeks in advance that the sea was turning red. They really pay attention to their dreams, especially when the sea is involved. He knew when the sea turned red, it meant blood and that “a bloody sea means many people have died there.” He also said there were particular animals that you would normally find in waters of deeper depths coming closer to shore. They knew something unusual was happening. On his island they also climbed a hill to avoid the waves. In another community I visited a woman who must have been well past ninety, and she swore she saw giants rising out of the sea.
WO It’s nice that anything related to the tsunami has equal weight with everything else in the film. In terms of dealing with authorities or government or permissions, did you have to deal with both Thai and Burmese officials?
OW I went over to Myanmar via boat from this little border town in Thailand. It took me to this fishing city in Myanmar called Kawthaung. When I got there, I was trying to do what I did in Thailand, which was find a fisherman or somebody and just hop on their boat and go with them to this island. No one was having that in Myanmar. They wouldn’t let me leave Kawthaung because I had come in by sea. I could only stay in that transient sea town and watch the rest of the world come and go by, boats all around me. I stayed in that town for a week trying to make it anywhere that wasn’t there, and I was losing my mind because everyone I spoke to said the same thing: “Oh, you have to go talk to Snake.” Snake was the guy in charge of the cultural tourism office. So, I’d go talk to Snake, and he’d tell me I had to rent boats and pay off all of these people, and that was the only way to get to the islands. It was going to be 7,000 dollars, and word on the street was that he would pocket a large portion of that. I tried everything. I had never spent that much money on anything. I would go down to where the freight boats were coming in and talk to the commercial fisherman, and they would all say, “No, you have to talk to Snake.” People were afraid of Snake. His real name is Mojo.
WO (laughter) Of course. Was he an official?
OW Yeah. He’s in charge of the tourism office there. So I had to do it Mojo’s 7,000 dollar way. It was the only way. We went back to Thailand and hired a boat for seven days, and then went back to Kawthaung in the boat and had one of Mojo’s officials hop onboard to escort us everywhere we went in Myanmar. That part was mandatory.
WO Gee willikers. How did you know where you wanted to go?
OW I knew from reading articles and looking at materials written by an anthropologist who did a lot of work in that area, as well as by just talking to folks. There are also companies that lead dive tours in that area, so I’d ask them which islands they visited. At one point in Myanamar we saw a traditional Moken boat out on the water, and we went to ask them if they were Moken and where they came from. It was not a Moken family though. There was one Moken on the boat, but the rest were fisherman. They told me which island they thought the coconut guitar was on and where I might find a family who still lives nomadically.
It was also challenging because we were just guessing. We had this boat and only seven days. It takes so much time to get from one place to the other, and the captain didn’t want to sail through the night. I really had to plot the course. At points I was just making wild guesses and thinking, We’re just going to go to this island and pray we find something.
WO How many were in your traveling party at this point?
OW Me, the captain, his wife, two guys who worked on the boat, the Burmese official, and Kevin Hayden, who came and met me for part of the time to help shoot and collect audio. Seven.
WO So in terms of people you brought—
OW It was just two of us, me and Kevin.
WO Once you’re on the boat from Myanmar were you shooting nonstop?
OW Kevin and I would shoot some things that we’d see, ships passing or a pretty sunset, but it was really once we got to the islands that the shooting took place. Also, due to global warming, there was a coral bleaching that happened in Thailand. The water got so warm the coral couldn’t survive, and as a result, there are not a lot of fish in certain parts. So a lot of the underwater footage was captured in Myanmar. We would stop and shoot underwater a lot.
WO The cameras you used for underwater stuff have built-in, underwater microphones?
OW Yes, they’re able to record audio. I was using the GoPro, a Cannon G1X and a Eumig Nautica, which is the Super 8 that has built-in housing. It was made for shooting underwater, but it’s Super 8, so it can’t record sound. The other cameras could though. I also collected audio with a hydrophone. On land we used the Cannon G1X, and Cannon X810, which is a prosumer camcorder.
WO In your preparation, were there people, places, or events you knew you were looking for?
OW I would make lists. I think I still have the notebook. “Shamans, medicine healers, grandmothers, young people, spear fisherman, etcetera.”
WO Did they have leaders? Dignitaries? Officials who are Moken?
OW The Shaman are the leaders of the community.
I also knew I wanted to capture the Labong ceremony, which happens every April. It’s when they gather their fingernails, hair-clippings, tobacco, and little gifts for the sea spirits, and send it all off to sea in a small handmade boat. It happens over the course of several days and is one of the biggest ceremonies for the Moken. I wanted to capture that, meet a family still living on a traditional boat, and see a coconut guitar.
You mentioned that it doesn’t focus a lot on music, but I have a question for you. Because I use music in a different way, I thought it was nice to have the lyrics translated. Do you like that?
WO Very much so. But here’s another interesting question—and I don’t know if you got into anything like this—but I watched it last night with Elsa, and she asked, “How long have they been using goggles?”
OW Yeah, I don’t know when that started. But I sent you a pair.
WO I know! I’m wondering how precious are they. I’m also wondering, did you basically just send me the equivalent of a coconut guitar?
OW I did.
WO I’ve got a little karma to deal with. That’s why I’m wondering.
OW But it was a gift from a man whose father made them. The thing is, he’s been introduced to other kinds of goggles. You’re right though, I didn’t think about the coconut guitar thing. But it was a gift.
WO Was there any sort of pre-goggle technology in evidence?
OW I didn’t see any. (laughter)
WO When you buy things you’re using, normal, government-issued money?
OW Yeah. It used to be that the Moken would just trade fish for everything, and there wasn’t a need for currency. It’s unfortunate because now the governments have stepped in. The Thai government regulates how frequently the Moken can fish and also how much they’re paid, which is a fourth of the market rate.
What’s so heartbreaking is that the entire Moken population, which is about 2,000 people, is not even doing an eighth of the amount of damage that the commercial fishing industry is doing to that area, which includes dynamite fishing in Myanmar.
But the Moken are hired by Burmese commercial fisherman to dive down and place dynamite. That’s one of the main ways they can make money. It’s not something they want to do. I talked to a lot of people who had lost their children because of it.
WO Injured or killed in explosions?
OW More because they’re being forced to dive to depths they don’t normally go to. Rising too rapidly. Stuff like that.
WO Here are a couple ethnography-oriented questions. With any of your films, and this one specifically, is there in your plans a way in which the subject will be able to experience any aspect of this finished film?
OW Yes. I have been applying to festivals in Thailand and Myanmar, trying to figure out a screening there. If that doesn’t happen, all the different people I worked with over there are going to help me arrange for it to screen on all the islands. Also, there’s an organization called RYOT Films that came on board, and they are helping me set up a way for people who watch the film to donate immediately back to the community. I spoke to a lot of Moken about what their needs are. We’re still working that out, but that’s something that is really important to me as well.
With the Haiti project, a lot of the Haitian community saw and loved the film. For the Ethiopia project, I sent copies of the film to the translators I worked with to share with the communities I captured, but I haven’t been able to go back. Of course I’d love to get over there.
WO I know that Sublime Frequencies has a controversial relationship with the academic ethnography community. With any of these films, what sort of relationship have you had or do have with the academic community? Sublime Frequencies filmmakers and documentarians—you as well—don’t have to do a lot of the BS that ethnomusicologists have to do in order to have their work accredited. You’re not looking for that kind of credit or attention, so you don’t have to necessarily describe your position. There is no “Olivia” in these movies.
OW There’s an ethnomusicologist within the Haitian community who worked with my drum teacher, and I always ask her, “How do you feel about this? Do you like the way it’s portrayed?” And she always loves the work that I do on Haiti. Robert Gardner—who was the director of the Film Study center at Harvard for forty years and who made some of my favorite ethnographic films—gave me a grant to create this most recent film, Sailing a Sinking Sea, after watching my two prior films.
I’m trying to do the best I can to give an honest portrayal of a community I’m so fortunate enough to spend time with and experience life with, and it is an honor to be able to share that experience with the rest of the world. It is also important to me that these films I am creating serve as a way to preserve the elements within these communities that make them so beautifully unique. Those are the qualities that should be celebrated in this almost homogenized world we find ourselves living in.
That anthropological community is opening up to this type of work though. Look at Leviathan and the success it had.
WO Once this film has had its festival run, are their institutions where you would like to show it?
OW Yeah. Sadly, Robert Gardner passed away this past summer, and he was one of my favorite filmmakers. I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to meet him just a year before his passing. But his collective Studio Seven Arts, which is where the grant for the film came from, is still up and running, and I would love to talk to them about some of the places where his work has shown. I know he is distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, and I’d like to talk to organizations like that to see if I can push that side of my work a little further. In the past I was not pursuing that. I would just say yes or no to whoever approached me, but I wasn’t actively finding places to screen. I’m trying to be more proactive with this one.
WO So what’s after this?
OW I would like to do a circumnavigation on a sailboat. I want to sail around the world, but stop at communities along the way, and also specific sites in the ocean.
I will have a live stream of the entire journey at sea so the audience can always be at sea with me and watch the sun rise and set, or even look for dolphins and whales, if they so desire. Then I’m also going to create short films to release as the journey is taking place. The project will culminate in a San Soliel-style feature after the circumnavigation is complete. It will be as collaborative as I can make it. Maybe one of the shorts will focus on bioluminescence, and I’ll invite a marine biologist to collaborate on that one with me. Or maybe I’ll look at a particular community and invite an anthropologist to come and join me.
I heard about this guy who is recording whale sounds, and he’s finding that the sounds the whales make mimic the sounds on the land nearest to them. So, near Asia the whales sound more melodic, and then around the coast of Africa he’s finding their patterns are more rhythmic. I think that inviting him to do a segment with me would be so exciting. I might even have a narrative director come collaborate on a short narrative film that takes place on the boat. Whatever the focus is, I want collaborators involved.
I don’t know of anybody really who’s done anything quite like this yet. Lots of people have circumnavigated and lots of people have made films, and some have made films while circumnavigating, but I am trying to create a community, a live stream, short TV segments, and a feature film, all while circumnavigating.
For his bread and butter, Will Oldham sings as Bonnie Prince Billy. He has interviewed Diamanda Galas, Merle Haggard, R. Kelly, and Sir Richard Bishop for various publications.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee