Jonathas de Andrade’s short film “O Peixe” (“The Fish,” 2016) appears first as an enveloping, relaxing, waterborne journey through tropical mangroves and around palm-tree dotted islands. Its main characters are strong, shirtless Brazilian fishermen of different ages. Shot in 16mm, the film’s soft contours and warm colors exude the heat and exoticism of the tropics; the viewer prepares for a journey of enchantment. But after the fishermen catch their prey, the narrative takes an unexpected turn.
Currently on view at the New Museum, the Brazilian artist’s 38-minute work emulates the style of ethnographic films, though without dialogue. “O Peixe” nonetheless presents a rich, understated soundscape: the rhythmic splashing of water against boat, the gentle swooshing of the breeze, the percussive flapping of the fish against the wooden floor of the boat, the roughness of the fishermen’s fingers against the fish’s scales, and, almost imperceptibly, their breath.
Set within this evocative landscape, each section of the film begins with a sequence of the man preparing his tool — a net, a single line of nylon with a hook on one end, a harpoon — casting it into the water, and waiting until something tugs. The fishermen’s smooth movements underscore their intimacy with the process and slowly build momentum; the scenes crescendo when a fish bites and the man is roused from his dozing to reel in his prey. The next move is unfamiliar at first, but eventually becomes an anticipated moment of intense pathos, the climax of every vignette: the fisherman struggles to control the fish, asserts his dominance, and then holds it against his chest. With his hands wrapped around its writhing body, he begins to stroke its drying scales, seemingly attempting to soothe it as it approaches the painful end. The moment is deeply paradoxical, its metaphoric reverberations made all the more powerful by the repetition of the practice by each of the ten men in the film.
The tender gesture is also one of discomfiting cruelty, of intimacy mixed with death — a perplexing ritual to behold. It conjures words from songs and films that here find a literal interpretation: “killing me softly,” “the kiss of death,” etc. Amid caresses of varying levels of empathy, some of the men press their lips against the fish, suggesting a deep connection that runs counter to the dynamic of domination. The sensuousness — eroticism, even — of the stroking motions also evokes the dynamics of a man’s romantic conquest, and the inherent menace of violence therein: the image of man as hunter, catching his prey (a woman), and stroking her to the point of a petite mort (or worse).
Installed in the New Museum’s ground-floor gallery, the film is displayed on a large, hanging screen, immersing its viewers in an experience of suspended belief. Watching “O Peixe” without the context offered by the wall text and bolstered by the repetition of the strange gesture, one begins to wonder about the origins of this fishing ritual, taking it for a beautiful if cruel custom in northeast Brazil. But the film provides clues that it may not be what it seems: once per vignette, the camera draws close to the fisherman’s face, framing his concentrated gaze set elsewhere until his eyes unexpectedly look up, straight at the camera, interrupting the illusion of an objective documentary. This confrontation with the viewer is better understood once the practice of fish-embracing is revealed as the artist’s fabrication.
De Andrade’s representation of the strong fishermen recalls a previous work, “Cartazes para o Museu do Homem do Nordeste” (“Posters for the Museum of the Man of the Northeast,” 2013), seen in New York as part of the Guggenheim’s Under the Same Sun exhibition. De Andrade also mixed fact with fiction in “Cartazes,” questioning the conventions of masculinity as they coalesce in the figure of the northeastern Brazilian man. Basing himself on the Museu do Homem do Nordeste (or Museum of the Man of the Northeast) in Recife, an anthropologic museum created in the late 1970s by Brazilian sociologist Gilberto Freyre, de Andrade sought “strong, brown-skinned workers” to photograph. With the resulting images, he created posters that emulate the language of advertising to probe at the identity construct of the “northeastern man” as a dark, male body laboring in the sun. In “O Peixe,” instead of the language of advertising, de Andrade taps into the genre of anthropological films. He similarly scrutinizes its exoticizing conventions and takes it a step further by inventing a ritual to dissect.
While the work comments on the power relations between predator and prey, and on the boundaries between reality and myth, “O Peixe” also draws on the fishermen’s performances to make a strong environmental statement. By representing fishermen who interact so intimately with their prey at the moment of their demise, and with a process that entails fishing one animal at a time, it proposes a slower rhythm to food-gathering, a more sustainable rate of natural resource consumption. It is perhaps the most eloquent advertisement for the slow food movement yet! The attention to the fish’s eyes underscores their existence as living beings, while tacitly asking the audience: Would you be willing to press a dying body against your chest before you use it for nourishment? As a counterpoint to our typically disembodied, detached, and sanitized experiences of food, “O Peixe” proposes an intimate proximity with that which feeds you.
As with “Cartazes,” in this film de Andrade take his viewer on an exotic, sensorial journey that is as much about observation as participation. The film proposes a repetitive sequence of tenderness, cruelty, death, and the sobering examination of power struggles. In facing the direct gaze of the fishermen and perhaps realizing the fictional aspect of their fishing practice, viewers also recognize that the performances actually took place. These fishermen felt something while going through the (albeit) prescribed motions, and we probably have, too.