“One child, one teacher, one book, one pen can change the world” are the words of Malala Yousafzai, one of the most inspirational teenagers in our world today. She was shot by the Taliban when she was 14 because of her vocal efforts in support of education and girls’ rights in Pakistan, a country 7,000 kilometres away from Cameroon. Malala had to escape to Europe for treatment, ultimately finding an abode in the United Kingdom to continue her life. How does such a story get translated into a movie in West Africa, Cameroon to be specific?
Fortunately, Malala’s life didn’t have to be reenacted to achieve this on-screen translation since The Fisherman’s Diary is based on its own locality’s true events. A setting in Menchum is a fishing community where girls’ education is likewise not encouraged, of course, aided by the apathetical women who are satisfied with their situation, and have also influenced younger girls into accepting this norm. Then we have the usual culprits, men, who would go to any length to uphold this culture. So, what happens when a girl wants otherwise or something more from her life? What happens when she wants to go against the tide? These are the questions that The Fisherman’s Diary answers and rightly tells a story more about the girl than the titular fisherman.
12-year old Ekah (Faith Fidel) wants more from life than her daily life of fishing and being an ‘acting-wife’ to her father. In a community that doesn’t believe in girl’s education, accompanied by a bitter father (Kang Quintus) with a sour experience, she finds it hard to break away from these customs. But she finds inspiration in Malala Yousafzai, whose words provide her with resilience and courage which she aptly embodies in order to attempt an escape from this cultural bondage. There are also other minor conflicts in the movie that set it up to be a captivating experience, but it falls short at establishing a solid past for viewers to draw emotions from and a future which feels like it was just dumped there in the cutting room as they fearfully realised that the movie might be entering the 3-hour mark.
Back to the comparison with Malala’s life, it is worth noting that Ekah’s life might not be in grave danger like Malala experienced or the men in this riverine society might not go to extreme measures like in the Pakistani village Malala comes from, but they flaunt subtle actions with which they uphold this system that pays them the most. Actions such as the delightful name calling, making ladies feel like they are in their rightful place. It can even be argued that this is more dangerous, because every girl in this society ends up becoming comfortable under the praises of— “just do as you are already doing, we love you”, “don’t change, every other girl should just be as dutiful as you are”, “we all want our daughters to be like you”,”we are all proud of you and you should remain here selling the products of your father just as you have been excellently doing”— all of which are non-threatening but serve as a systematic way of reinforcing archaic beliefs. It would only take an extra vigilant girl to perceive the golden cage and its deceptive coating.
The father, Solomon, often calls his daughter “Small Mami” (meaning little mother) because she reminds him of his mother. Ekah is quite hardworking and almost kills him with kindness as she sought for his good side. That’s the irony of the name-calling, whereby the “small Mami” tag is more of an extra coat of paint to keep the golden cage fresh, than an honest praise of her motherly diligence. Or it could be both, who knows? She is a young girl who should be in school, but she is kept outside these four walls of a classroom so she can perform such tender duties to the satisfaction of her father. I was looking forward to her fierce speech of liberty where she tells her father that she doesn’t want to be his “little mother” anymore (no matter how sweet the name might sound), but wants to be a girl of her age— nothing more, nothing less. Then, I remembered that we were situated in a village in Cameroon and not the suburbs of Los Angeles.
The actress, Faith Fidel, who has been acting since the age of five, carries the whole movie on her back. The supporting actors could only follow her lead as Fidel singlehandedly directs the tone of the movie. Even in scenes featuring the multi-hyphenated Kang Quintus, who plays her father and serves as the producer of the film, she never lets go of the ‘lead’ tag and duly retains it until her final scene. This could partly be due to the fact that the major themes in the movie all point towards her and she delivers under this pressure, as the film speaks on culture, feminism, female rights and as thoroughly mentioned— girls’ education.
Other supporting characters also deliver in their own ways, whether by generating further complications or providing humour. However, these consistent performances are almost ruined by the film’s soundtrack, a noticeable flaw which disturbed me from start until the final piece which almost redeems it. Sometimes silence can be golden, but the film’s creatives failed to know that. Using Nollywood as an example, they always want to fill up silence. Sharing a border might mean we share such elements. In The Fisherman’s Diary, several unfitting pop music was used, possibly the tracks that are trending in their country. These tracks mostly have little or no impact in the scenes they are placed and only serve as a distraction to the story being told. During a mourning period, a fast-paced pop music was placed in the background. Even worse when we had a shaky emotional connection to the dead. This is nothing against the song, it is about its placement in the film.
The highly serious drama isn’t predictable which makes the progression of the conflicts feel fresh. However, as it keeps steering further, one might crave for the urgency of a familiar bend so as to wrap things up. But after a long (let’s say boat) ride in never-been-before waters, it starts to lose control and is forced to brake abruptly, possibly, as they realised that their target audience might not sit tight for a 3-hour, occasionally tear-jerking flick. It could have been a tighter tearful 2 hr 30 min film were it not for some rough motives that needed straightening out, most especially from the father’s side. The backstory provided to support his numerous reservations against female education does not make you sympathetic enough towards him. You will only see him as another man who wants to uphold culture for his selfish sake, even though he is carrying his own pain.
Pain knows no language, however, Nigerians familiar with the pidgin English would find it delightful to watch the movie, which is in Kamtok (a Cameroonian pidgin English) and standard English which everyone should understand. Another delight would be the impressive shots of the river and shoreline, most especially, when aided by the sunlight. Within the village, there are also other camera manoeuvres which help viewers to familiarize themselves with the setting like they are there on a tourist trip. Due to this down-to-earth camera work, you develop a mental idea of where important locations are, such as the shore, school, teacher’s house and Ekah’s shack— and rarely left behind to scramble.
Despite the attempt to use flashbacks to establish an emotional root and the hastiness of the resolution, the provided backstory remained vague and the ending could not be thoroughly enjoyed as one should have. The gem of the movie is the conflict it holds, but hurriedly squanders. The length might be a problem for many although I wouldn’t have minded a longer story reaching 3 hours. But, hey! It was Cameroon’s official selection for the 2021 Oscars, let’s support the fam! Ultimately, before going into the film, you should know that as much as the hopes of Ekah’s community rested on her, so did the hopes of a 2hr 23min film.
- The way Ekah calculates arithmetic like a loading robot is so funny and strange. Why, Mr Director?
- I genuinely had to search for an interview of King Quintus to be sure that he doesn’t talk that way in real life.
- I keep referring to the ‘Kang’ in Kang Quintus as ‘King’ anytime I read his name. It should be King, right?
- The teacher should’ve known better than to blab to her father about Ekah visiting the school. She should know how such men respond to such news in this community.
- What’s up with the black face make-up on everyone, even Ramsey Nouah? Is it something the water in this area does to the face?
- Their Kamtok pidgin sweet no be small. It sounded better than the soundtrack in my humble opinion.
- The movie is mostly about Ekah, but it’s so patriarchal that they still titled it “The Fisherman’s Diary”.
- I still believe that Faith Fidel could have played her future self. The sudden switch felt out of place. Whoever made the decision should remain on the same salary for the next year or two.
- Fun fact: Menchum is a location that borders eastern Nigeria.
- On that note, when is Netflix going to give us The Milkmaid, Nigeria’s Oscar selection.
The Fisherman’s Diary is currently available on Netflix.