Berlinale 2023: Zeevonk (Sea Sparkle) - A vivid portrayal of inner tumult

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Image Courtesy: Berlinale
Image Courtesy: Berlinale

Wendy Huyghe, the co-writer of the film Zeevonk (Sea Sparkle) evocatively compares bereavement in childhood to a blooming plant suddenly deprived of its roots. It needs extra care to flourish for the future, she writes in her note on the film, hoping that Sea Sparkle would be a means to comfort and support for all the young lost souls, like its teenage protagonist Lena (Saar Rogiers). The Belgium/Netherlands co-production is a chronicle of Lena’s unresolved grief after the untimely death of her fisherman father Antoine in an accident at sea. The directorial debut of Wendy’s own brother, Domien Huyghe, it had its world premiere on Friday as the opening film of the Generation KPlus section of Berlinale 2023.

Sea Sparkle took me back to a clutch of films that I hold very dear, all of them about children’s first experience of death and reconciliation with it—Umesh Kulkarni’s Marathi film, Vihir (The Well), that played in the same section in Berlinale back in 2010, Lukas Dhont’s Cannes 2022 Grand Prix winner Close, Charlotte Wells’ Oscar nominated Aftersun and Charlotte Regan’s The Scrapper that won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. There are lots of things that are similarly poignant about each of these films; pain and sorrow are feelings held in common by humanity after all. But then they can also be just as unique and particularised in the individual’s experience and expression. Each one of us has her own way of grieving.

“When I lost my father as a teenager, stories about loss helped me to name the unmentionable, to learn to understand the incomprehensible,” writes Domien in his director’s statement. “Yet I often felt unfulfilled,” he adds. In the case of Sea Sparkle, the Huyghe siblings create a unique narrative that ties up Lena’s own journey to atonement with her resolute attempts at restitution of the honour of her lost father who, in retrospect, is being blamed for the accident. 

Saar renders complicated emotions of Lena—from the carefree spirit to the gnawing rage and extreme restlessness—real and relatable. Be it bravely battling the wind and waves in her sailing boat or demanding her father back from the ocean, she is fierce as well as vulnerable. A vivid portrayal of inner tumult.  

In a scene, we find a distressed and restless Lena in the foreground surrounded by whispers in an assortment of voices talking of Antoine’s presumed recklessness. There is anger and resentment against them. These charges weigh her down as much as the loneliness and pain that she hasn’t been able to express. The sense of betrayal puts her relationships and friendships at peril. Ironically, it also helps her find a new friend in Vincent, another lost soul trying hard to come to terms with the loss of another kind—the divorce of his parents. The film pivots on such contradictions. 

The glimpse of a huge shadow lurking under the sea has her convinced that an unknown sea creature was the real cause of the accident. It gives her cause to carry on and helps her cope despite the overwhelming mourning. The monster becomes a refuge. The giant, almost mythological Sea Sparkle shines a light in the darkness of life. There’s something paradoxical in the way death makes Lena connect with the bigger wonders of life and the mysteries of the ocean and loss leads to an exciting adventure and discovery, grounding it all in the real threat of global warming and the accompanying marine migration. Sea Sparkle is at once elegiac as it is driven by an urgent spirit of enquiry and curiosity. 

Coming of age in Sea Sparkle lies in confronting loss than trying to escape it, in sharing the grief than hiding it, in allowing tears to flow, letting a song dedicated to “Pa” (written for the film by well-known hip-hop artiste Brihang) find its essential beat and the profound admission to yourself that you have to let go of a loved one, gently, even as you hold on strongly to those who still give life its meaning. Those gone will never come back but they won’t be forgotten either, they’d continue to live in collective memory, be the wind in your sails, even as you become the captains of your own ships and the true inheritors of their legacy. You can’t be afraid of the sea; however choppy it might be. Life is all about not quitting. Ever.

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