Film Review: Golden Fish, African Fish

Everything comes from the sea.” The inhabitants of the Senegalese village of Kafountine in the film Golden Fish, African Fish all stress the importance of the ocean. Kafountine, on the Atlantic coast, has become a regional hub for non-industrial fishing, employing around 15,000 people. Golden Fish, African Fish documents the way of life that depends on this artisanal fishing and offers a clear, unbiased view of a situation that is far more complex and than it may at first seem to an outside viewer. The film was screened by Mundus Maris in Brussels on 16 March, as part of their programme of arts and sciences for sustainability at sea.

If there is a tendency for people who have never worked on a fishing boat to idealise fishing, Golden Fish, African Fish leaves no doubt that it is backbreaking work. Though they may sing as they haul their nets (the film has a great soundtrack), fishermen spend long hours exposed to the elements. As one of the Kafountine fishermen says, “the sea enters your bones and your body, that’s why the fisherman gets cold quickly and loses his strength.

It is not only the catching of the fish that is hard. Porters carry the crates of fish from the boats to shore, where others scale and take the fins off them. Most of the fish are then smoked in earth ovens, and the scales are ground into flour. All of this is done by hand, exhausting physically, while the workers at the ovens get so much smoke in their eyes that they often become partially blind. One reason they have to work in such conditions, Dr Aliou Sall, an expert on the anthropology of fisheries in Senegal and vice-president of Mundus Maris, explained, is that since the colonial era almost all investment in fisheries has been in industrial scale companies. Artisanal fishing has been neglected and people have to fend for themselves.

Paradoxically, it is precisely because of predominance of industrial fisheries elsewhere on the African Atlantic coast that Kafountine attracts migrant workers from across the region – up to 15,000 people, according to Mundus Maris. Huge trawlers that dredge up every living things are often foreign-owned and so leave nothing for the local people. Likewise, the factories that process the fish, turning it into animal or plant feed instead of human food, mean a decline in jobs. Kafountine has so far escaped this fate and so people have come from the Gambia, Guinea, Burkina Faso, and elsewhere to, as one young man says, “struggle and make a living” in a place where there are still jobs.

Kafountine’s model is far from perfect: for example, people are taking wood from the forest at an unsustainable rate to fuel smoking ovens, and furthermore the smoke is toxic. But it is a living community. As one of the workers says, “‘Factory’, here, means ‘death’.” Golden Fish, African Fish shows at once the commitment and the struggle of a life without mass industrialisation.