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KYD is proud to present a selection of film writing from this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival Critics Campus. Now in its sixth edition, Critics Campus enables eight emerging Australian film critics to develop their skills in a live festival setting, including mentoring sessions with eight prominent film critics, and panels with key Australian industry and media players.

For more great film writing from this year’s festival, check out the MIFF Blog!

The proverb ‘give a man a fish, and you will feed him for a day – teach a man to fish, and you’ve fed him for a lifetime,’ has a contested origin. It has been attributed to an ancient Chinese axiom and the biblical passage Matthew 4:19 (an unrelated fishing metaphor) but the earliest confirmed usage of the phrase is in a late 19th century story written by Anne Isabella Ritchie, daughter of British novelist William Thackeray. Considering the proverb’s celebration of freedom through independence, of work over welfare, it’s unsurprising that it may have sprung from a time in which the values of modernity and the forces of industrialisation were gaining momentum. Two films at this year’s Melbourne International Film Festival, Bait and Buoyancy, use the subject of fishing to explore socio-political issues that draw this proverb into a contemporary context.

Set in a quaint fishing village in Cornwall, Mark Jenkin’s Bait follows a frustrated fisherman who refuses to change his career despite a shift in local industry away from fishing and toward tourism. Roth Rathjen’s Buoyancy, based on real-life events, tells the harrowing story of a vulnerable Camobodian teenager who, while searching for work to support his family, is unwittingly enslaved on a Thai fishing boat. Both films use the fishing industry to foreground a protagonist who struggles toward self-sufficiency – a quality that since modernity has evolved into a litmus test of a person’s worth, both to themselves and their community. By illustrating the shared struggle of these two fisherman, separated by a vast cultural and geographic distance, the films hint at why a proverb extolling the virtues of self-reliance may have attained such widespread prevalence.

‘Self-sufficiency’ has evolved into a litmus test of a person’s worth, both to themselves and their community.

Fishing is one of the world’s biggest industries, and in order to keep costs low many companies import their products from countries in Asia. These savings however come at the cost of lowered safety standards and insufficient government oversight, which have led to widespread ethical violations. According to a report published in Science Advances in July 2018, approximately 70% of the seafood export market is connected to forced child labour, particularly within hub countries of Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Phillipines and Peru.

With around $12 billion worth of imports currently deemed at risk of being manufactured by slave labour, the Australian government has urged retailers to connect with human rights organisations to ensure their products are unaffected.

In Buoyancy, the fishing boat’s maniacal captain Rom Ran advises protagonist Chakra to think himself lucky, comparing the boy’s experience to his own childhood enslavement, which he says was far harsher. This revelation situates the boy’s torturous experience within a cycle that dates back to before he was born. Though a strange kind of relationship begins to develop between Chakra and the captain, Rom Ran privately celebrates the ease with which he can manipulate the boy, rewarding his good behaviour with small pieces of fish and the promise of an opportunity to become his successor.

Meanwhile, the fishing industry’s heavy reliance on importing from countries in Asia has drawn revenue away from smaller fishing operations in the West, forcing employees into other fields of work. According to The Guardian, Britain exports the majority of the fish that it catches and imports most of the fish that it eats. Brexit’s bid to protect fragile coastal communities by banning EU fisherman from UK waters promises an increase in business for British fishing boats, though recent economic analysis suggests the transition will also lead to a dramatic drop in prices, significantly impacting the livelihood of fishermen and their communities.

In Bait, brothers Martin and Steven react in opposite ways to the erosion of the local fishing industry. While Steven refits his boat to offer tours to the increasing hoards of visiting tourists, Martin continues trying to make a living as a fisherman by throwing nets at the seashore. Despite generating very little income for himself, Martin still feels an obligation to his community, giving some of his catch to neighbours for free and hiring the help of a local teenager desperate for work. Martin’s income is further disrupted by the arrival of an upper-middle-class family who have purchased his childhood home and turned it into a bed and breakfast. Confrontations ensue over parking and the noise of his brother’s boat, revealing the cognitive dissonance inherent in the gentrification of an area in which the fishing industry is seen as both a source of local attraction and an annoyance.

Through the journeys of their protagonists, Bait and Buoyancy provide contemporary reevaluations of what it means to teach a man to fish.

Through the journeys of their protagonists, Bait and Buoyancy provide contemporary reevaluations of what it means to teach a man to fish. Rom Ran’s experience with slavery taught him at a young age that to become independent one must not simply acquire and sustain a skill, but exploit the skills of others. The skill that has ensured his survival is not fishing, but the ability to manipulate those around him. Chakra soon learns that in order to survive he must out-skill those on board. Likewise, brothers Martin and Steven were taught to fish, but it is their capacity for flexibility that will determine their survival in the face of financial instability.

The weight of a skill has changed dramatically since Ritchie wrote her proverbial ode to self-sufficiency. In contemporary society there is less value in learning skills that are tied specifically to one career path, and more in equipping oneself for an uncertain future. With the precarity of the future rushing us to over-skill, so that we may have a chance at supporting ourselves in a casualised workforce with an increasing unemployment rate, and a welfare system that threatens more than it reassures – it is now more than ever that this proverbial fish needs to be gutted and seen for what it is. Given its flimsy relationship to contemporary reality, the proverb’s enduring ubiquity has more to say about those who profit from the perpetuation of libertarian myths. Bait and Buoyancy work together to reveal this proverb for what it truly is: an illusion.

Buoyancy plays the 2019 Melbourne International Film Festival on Thursday 15 August, and Bait plays Saturday 17 August.