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GOCRITIC! Animest 2022

GoCritic! Review: Once there was a sea…

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- Emilian Lungu takes a look at Joanna Kozuch's animated documentary about the disappearance of the Aral Sea, which won the Best Anidoc Prize at Animest

GoCritic! Review: Once there was a sea…
Once there was a sea... by Joanna Kozuch

Polish director Joanna Kozuch's short, animated documentary Once there was a sea..., made in co-production with Slovakia,was awarded the Best Anidoc Prize at the 17th edition of Animest, and rightfully so: its combination of animation techniques and immense political depth make it a rich and splendid film.

Once there was a sea… works at the intersection of what appears to be linocut or inkwork, watercolour and photographical insertions, artistic means which successfully convey the film’s melancholy. The Aral Sea is now only a memory which lives on in the minds of the inhabitants of Mo’ynoq, a city in northern Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, which is a former port on the Aral Sea, now 150 km away from the nearest water body in the Aralkum Desert. The film tells the story of the disappearance of the Aral Sea through testimonies and interviews with the local people of Mo’ynoq who have lived there since the 1970s, when the sea first started to dry up. The director visited Uzbekistan three times between 2008 and 2018, and she structures the film like a standard documentary in which we see an animated version of Kozuch traveling and talking to her protagonists. Each of them recounts one part of the sea’s story, building up the bigger picture together. But these characters aren’t specific people, a narrative title informs us; instead, they’re an amalgamation of real people the director met during her travels in the region.

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First, she meets Svetlana, a former canned fish factory worker who lost her eye in a work accident. Hers is emblematic of most people’s stories who stayed in Mo’ynoq after the sea vanished: they didn’t have anywhere else to go. Then she speaks with Gulshat, one of the few to have emigrated from Mo’ynoq, but who still runs an empty hotel in the city whenever she comes home to visit. Next, she crosses paths with an actual ship’s captain. This is where the viewer is confronted with a deep feeling of melancholy specific to Mo’ynoq – the sea used to be the captain’s life and now his sole purpose is to take care of a monument which has marked the sea’s levels over the decades.

Finally, Kozuch decides to pursue Sergei, the former manager of a now-defunct factory who now drives tourists around the seabed and who also takes the director herself on a trip. He was the one person who was obviously close to the Soviet administrators and provides the most insightful look at the history of the sea’s disappearance. His matter-of-fact discourse reveals fascinating details on the military bioweapons lab that used to be located on an island in the sea, and on the government’s intended - though totally delusional - measures to regain access to water.

The protagonists’ vivid memories carry a strong sense of melancholy, the legacy of a glorious but now vanished past where fishing, working and sailing were all feasible. This nostalgia is very skilfully depicted, with the film’s animation solely consisting of black-and-white linocuts, scattered with an elegant, sparse and symbolic dose of blue watercolour, representing the sea painted over sand. Purple watercolour is also used occasionally, which might signify both the chemicals used for cotton cultivation and the feeling of the sea’s absence.

Once there was a sea… is a story about making do under a terrible political administration. The Soviet leaders’ decision to start growing cotton in Uzbekistan in the 1960s led to an ecological catastrophe on account of poorly designed irrigation plans and overuse of chemicals. But it’s also a testimony to the people of Mo’ynoq who lived through this disaster, which changed their lives forever: this animated documentary puts the pieces of their memories back together to form a complete puzzle.

Moreover, Joanna Kozuch’s documentary forms part of the wider mosaic of environmental struggles which we’re facing today, offering up a dystopian snapshot of possible, future repercussions and an eco-critique of the oblivious, megalomaniacal ambitions wielded by the powers that be, the consequences of which are now irreversible.

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