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Yemaya Recommends : Documentaries : WAWATA TOPU—Mermaids of Timor-Leste (English: 33mins)
  • :Nilanjana Biswas
  • :44
  • :December
  • :2013

Documentaries : WAWATA TOPU—Mermaids of Timor-Leste (English: 33mins) A film by David Palazón & Enrique Alonso

Yemaya Recommends


WAWATA TOPU—Mermaids of Timor-Leste (English: 33mins)

A film by David Palazón & Enrique Alonso

This review is by Nilanjana Biswas (, Independent Researcher

The film begins with stunning underwater visuals: shoals of fish darting in and out of coral reefs, as if dancing to the haunting chant-like singing that forms the film’s opening score while clownfish squirm amidst fingers of swaying white anemone. And then, suddenly and breathtakingly, there are women there, surrounded by fish and swinging webs of light, holding what appear to be long sticks in their hands and dance-walking through the blue waters.

The wawata topu, described as the ‘mermaids’ of Timor-Leste in the film’s title, are the women divers of Adara in West Atauro in Timor-Leste. As the film follows some of the women divers, such as 18-year old Sara or 15-year old Angelita while they go about their daily work, we learn that the community survives on fishing and subsistence farming. Corn is the staple, which the women hand-pound into meal in large wooden morta

Both the men and the women of the community go fishing in small, artisanal boats, casting nets and spearing fish. The long sticks of the opening shots turn out to be spear guns used in the course of daily fishing and by divers who walk the seafloor and swim the reefs, spear gun in hand, eyes covered by goggles, looking for fish and octopi. Men, women and children all go diving, learning the skill as a part of growing up, almost just like they learnt to walk.

The old order is however changing. Ageing couples eagerly looking to their children to relieve them from the rigours of hard labour find themselves facing a harsh reality. Their children, unlike themselves, have been schooled, and the school certificate is, more often than not, a one-way ticket to jobs and opportunities in far away cities. Other contradictory discourses shape the lives of the wawata topu. The expectations around the custom of barlake, a form of bride-price, are in a state of flux. Neither wanting to lose a pair of precious labouring hands, the bride’s family and the groom’s, each expects the newlyweds to move in with them after the barlake settlement. The power relation between men and women is also changing under the pressure of modernity. The men, unhampered by domestic duties, are able to catch the larger, more expensive varieties of fish leaving a diminished catch for the women to sell in far-off markets.

As the filmmakers describe it, the film is an ethnographic portrait that makes visible the critical contribution of women to the household economies and the fishing community at large. The film’s strength is that without relying on voiceover or commentary, through the use of only interviews and extremely well-shot visuals, it manages to convey the very real sense of a community caught in the cusp of change. It may be set in a remote equatorial island village but the film speaks of the universal dilemmas that accompany the condition of modernity, and raises questions about the survival and future of small-scale fishing communities everywhere.

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