Meet The Moken

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A documentary about the Moken people is a tale of love found at sea.

Sailing A Sinking Sea begins with the tale of a princess living on the islands of the Andaman Sea, Pisia. On a rainy night when all went pitch black, her boyfriend went into the wrong room, Pisia’s sister’s room, and began making love with her. Pisia saw and cursed the two “to be wanderers of the sea. To be Moken.” In the their language, a man tells us, “Mo means ‘sinking’ and ken means ‘water.’ So ‘Moken’ is like cursing people to sink in the water.”

The beginning story of Pisia told over dark blue shots of the sea is eerie and ominous. That heartbreak and isolation lingers throughout the film in a beautiful yet plain, distilled approach, listening to the Moken sing and talk about their world — and their inner-world — in true stories, and mythology. Their whole way of life is foreign to me.

The Moken are people of Thailand and Burma who island hop in the Andaman and lead lives reliant upon the water. They live on boats they build themselves. They eat whatever fish they catch with the spears that they make, and rice brought in from the mainland. Filmmaker Olivia Wyatt lived with the Moken for four months, compiling these stories and images for her third feature length documentary.

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A man prepares to dive with spear in hand. Image from Sailing A Sinking Sea.

Wyatt is a part of the Sublime Frequencies Collective which presented Sailing A Sinking Sea last week at Hollywood Theatre. It was part of a double documentary presentation, along with Palace of the Winds, which you can read about here. Sublime Frequencies brings the obscure sights and sounds of foreign cultures and music to the US. In this case, the way of life was as exotic as it gets.

Love, relationship and sex are prevailing themes. Soon into the film, we learn about what a Moken man must do to propose. If he loves a girl and wants to be with her, he has to be able to build a boat. If he can’t, he doesn’t marry the girl.

We meet a Moken family. Over scenes of them hanging out on their boat, sitting quietly and eating at sea, the mother tells us that she met her husband at sea. “We fell in love and have lived together ever since. We have lived together since we were young. We will not leave each other until we are old. We help each other to survive.” They live on the boat. Wherever they are when it gets dark, they dock and sleep.

There are countless other odes to these themes, a lot of them tender and lighthearted. A story of sex with a mermaid. A song about a hidden penis called a shrimp, illustrated with shots of creatures cuddling.

Their cosmology surrounding the moon and sun is that they are a couple, and the stars are their children. They argue a lot so they stay far from each other, but when they want to be together, “they become zero” in the eclipse.

There are very few scenes where the sea is not visible. And Olivia spends a good deal underwater catching the colorful coral worlds, schools of dazzling sea life, and Moken men diving to catch fish. The colors, as you can probably imagine, are an exotic palette, bright pinks and turquoiuse, every mood of blue, and matched with the continual movements of the water, the reflections of the skies, the barechested men and women, scenes of breastfeeding, close-ups of splaying flowers: it is a sensual experience. It’s amplified by the fresh rhythms of the Baja Bitchins and the ever present sounds of water: waves, gurgling sounds, droplets, and the hollow echoes known only to the underwater ear.

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Surface of the Sea, a still from Sailing A Sinking Sea.

Wyatt informs with storytelling and visuals, but mostly I saw this documentary as delivering a mood of a way of life. We don’t learn so much as to what goes into each day, the practicality of seafaring life. We are mostly privy to the emotional and mythological world.

When Wyatt shows us the people in, like a slideshow of moving images with each person staring into the camera, I saw that their expressions represented those of the animals. There was a lack of self-consciousness even as the camera on them. And ease in their eyes, maybe sadness but little skepticism, confusion, wear and tear.

Obviously, this was just my sense. And I couldn’t help compare it to the confusing world I live in, the world where relationship and love is made more abstract and trivial by having so many tasks done for us. Where distraction to heartbreak and inherent loneliness is so plentiful this too has become confusing when we do just feel those things.

I imagine Wyatt heard a lot of stories over four months but judging from what she selected to share in the documentary, I think along with discovering a humbling awe and respect for the Moken, what also stood out to her was how they could build their lives together, how they approached marriage and family. 

The surrender to family, to living, the scenes of twenty or so Mokens together pushing a boat up on shore, brought little to mind of the search for self. The conditions of each of our realities determine what we need to do to survive. It’s blurry sometimes here. For the Mokens, love means survival. And that isn’t confused. I build you a boat before I propose, that is the only way I can propose. Love means I’ll help you to survive. I’ll help you not sink. If you don’t love, or show infidelity, you wander and sink.




There are 5 comments

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  1. Ben Fowler

    Interesting! Romantic sailor cultures. Beautiful, really. A way of life so simple in the ways people today might crave, but then also full of hidden meaning and responsibility.

    • Kathleen Dolan

      Thanks for reading Vicky, your comment brings something to mind. I realize I didn’t go into some things that are pertinent to this story and were mentioned as part of Wyatt’s Q&A session at the end. There are a few things the Moken are worrying about. “Almost every single” Moken survived the tsunami in 2004. They knew how to rise with the sea, if I remember one woman saying. But since, they have seen their numbers decrease and face new laws and restrictions about fishing, which is a main source of their food.

      When writing the review, this escaped my mind. Which I appreciate in retrospect. Wyatt really emphasized the way of life, sparing little space for what threatens it – we know what threatens it, for the most part. Her film leaves room for mostly the beauty.

      As for rocking the boat, there were quite a few nods to just that in the Moken tales 😉


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