The Cruel Sea (Film)

The pearl fishermen heading out for a 4-month voyage to sea.

The Cruel Sea

Director: Khalid Al-Siddiq

Year: 1972

Country: Kuwait

Arab cinema has been going strong in recent years (see for instance Theeb), thanks in no small part to financing from Qatar and Dubai. This cinema’s indigenously Arab roots, however, were built through efforts by pioneer filmmakers most of whom remain unknown to the canon (Youssef Chahine is one exception) and undistributed on DVD. One such pioneer effort was Khalid Al-Siddiq’s 1972 The Cruel Sea, the first feature ever made in Kuwait. Set before the discovery of oil, it depicts Kuwait prior to its radical transformation, and a way of life practically extinct even as the film was made — Kuwait in the 1970s was arguably the most economically and socially prosperous nation in the region. In these times, when oil was still waiting to be discovered in the ground, sustenance came from the Gulf. “All of Kuwait depends on the sea”, one fisherman tells another in the opening scenes. But it is an indomitable and unpredictable provider.

Pearl fishing was the economic backbone of this pre-oil era. A perilous activity for the divers who plunge deep to haul up oysters that are 99% likely to be empty — and there’s no way to tell if the shell will contain a pearl, it’s just pot luck. Abdullah is an ex-diver who knows these risks all too well, having given 20 years of his life to pearl diving. He doesn’t have much to show for them, other than scars left by the shark attack that ended his career — a moment we see in a dramatic flashback. In another flashback, we come to understand the nightmares and sleepless nights this lifestyle inflicted on his wife Latifah, in constant worry about her husband’s safety.

So when their young son, Moussaed, asks permission to join the boats setting sail for the annual four-month fishing voyage, Abdullah rejects adamantly — he does not want that same life for his only child. But Moussaed is determined, and for a simple reason: he loves and wishes to marry Noura, who loves him back, but whose materialistic father snubs the son of a poor fisherman. In fact, he already has a much older, wealthy merchant lined up for his daughter. Only one option exists in Moussaed’s mind: playing the pearl diving lottery, and hoping he comes back with a prize catch that will give him the fortunes and status to convince Noura’s father.

Director Khalid Al-Siddiq trained at Pune Film Academy in India, before returning to Kuwait where there was simply no existing film industry. Having tasted world cinema in his education, he settled on Neo-realism as the most fruitful model, and The Cruel Sea does have shades of La Terra Trema or, going back further, the Mexican film Redes. Yet, Al-Siddiq’s film is very much steeped in Kuwaiti traditions and folklore. It was filmed in the old city quarters and coastal ports, far from the modernised Kuwait. The music of the region, percussive and enticing, lingers across several evocative, almost ethnographic, sequences. There’s the nahham whose role on the fishing boats is to sing to keep spirits high on the lengthy journey, and there’s the drumming and dancing at Noura’s wedding ceremony — a celebration in counterpoint to the violation of her wishes it represents.

The groom and other men dancing at Noura’s wedding.

Technically speaking, though it is occasionally rough around the edges by more polished standards, ambition is not lacking. Al-Siddiq frequently employs zoom-ins for emphasis (sadly this feels outdated now), and the fish-eye lens for point-of-view shots, those of Moussaed and Noura. The distortion of the lens expresses the paranoia and fear when they look at each other in their secret meetings — Noura’s father would kill her if he knew she loved Moussaed. Most notable though is the underwater photography (the first Arab film to have even attempted this) showing the pearl dives, a major technical challenge by the standards of equipment and experience the crew had. These are paired with aerial shots of the boats, so that we get views of the sea both from below and above.

Beneath its neo-realist exterior and its attempts to punch above its film-technique weight, this film is an elemental Greek tragedy, in which the sea controls fates like one of the Gods. It is attributed the personification of a malevolent entity, like a Moby Dick. Men and women alike, humbled before its might, curse its callous indifference when it captures divers in their prime, or pray to it for a profitable haul. The original Arabic title, ‘Bas Ya Bahr’, could be translated as a direct plea, something like ‘Mercy, O Sea’. It doesn’t seem to heed these supplications. As the classic Arab novel Cities of Salt by Abdulrahman Munif (a tale of the Gulf’s transition from Bedouin lands to modern oil-rich states) described it, the sea is “a swallower who never is satisfied”. The death of one sea worker in that novel, trapped at the bottom of the sea, closely resembles the final fate of Moussaed.

Made after Kuwait had switched dependency from water to what would turn out to be fire, The Cruel Sea was a reminder that Kuwait had not always been an oil-rich state, that it had faced its share of struggle, class tensions and patriarchal oppression. Al-Siddiq’s achievement was in telling a story of his people, grappling with Kuwaiti national identity, and making the first ever feature in his country. He would make two further films, before moving to television and advertising when economic crisis and the Gulf War made filmmaking even harder than it already was. Meanwhile, The Cruel Sea and other films from 1970s Arab cinema (by the likes of Omar Amiralay or Nabil Maleh), in need of salvation from the oblivion of forgotten archives, would be ideal for the remit of an organisation like the World Cinema Foundation. Over to you, Mr. Scorsese.

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