Sundance 2023 Review: “Against the Tide” Sets a High Watermark

“You’ll never do anything fishing in shallow waters,” Ganesh tells his friend Rakesh in “Against the Tide,” attempting to broaden his horizons over a fire. They’re eating like kings – as Rakesh notes, the tuna they’re roasting would fetch $60 at a restaurant – but feeding themselves anything other than their own catch would be difficult when seafood isn’t fetching the price it used to from small vendors such as themselves and the resources to catch it has only gone up in price. Ganesh, who studied abroad in Scotland has more of an appetite for the business end of fishing than Rakesh, who remained in the Koli community they grew up in together and is content to collect only as much fish as will keep a roof over the humble home he shares with his wife, mother and new baby boy, but seeing his friend struggle with even this modest goal as there are fewer fish to catch, he suggests he try the deep sea fishing that he’s built a living on, only he’s not in the best position to be giving advice when he’s losing money on an even greater scale.

The fact that the two men find themselves in the same boat, at least in a business sense, opens up a captivating comparison in “Against the Tide,” where the shifts in fishing seasons brought about by climate change and pollution and the ever-soaring cost of the work has been a great equalizer. We’re reminded throughout that the Koli, a proud people, bless their children by tossing them in the air with the admonition, “Koli have no fear,” and it’s a belief that even under great duress, Ganesh seems to embrace, having the side of his car emblazoned with the hashtag #lastfishermaninBombay as advertisement and appreciating the challenge of wriggling out of mounting debt. You sense he might not be so cavalier if he had a child like Rakesh, who faces medical bills he can’t afford for his son’s heart defect, but the price of independence is starting to weigh on him nonetheless, with his wife increasingly irritated (though she’ll blame it on the heat of the curry at dinner, if it’s too apparent) and musing aloud if he should start to resort to more extreme measures, fishing in riskier waters and putting even more money in to buy expensive LED lights to see at night.

Director Sarvnik Kaur dips under the surface of things in a variety of ways, but in the most obvious one, “Against the Tide” has remarkable footage below and above the water when both its subjects go out on a job, showing the often acrobatic work involved in reeling in shrimp and fish as generations before them have done to sell at local markets and how the diminishing returns are hardly rewarding the effort. One particularly harrowing sequence has Rakesh venturing out on his own during a storm that has soaked through the porous roof of his house, believing that the turbulence will bring out a bounty from the sea, but even he recognizes there’s something unsustainable about that mentality if not the practice itself when even in success, the risk can’t possibly be recompensated, particularly when average people will want to bargain down his rate to the bare minimum. However, old habits are hard to break and the film’s tension derives from how stubborn Ganesh and Rakesh are for defensible reasons, with the latter resisting the modern capitalist push towards maximizing earnings in favor of the modest life that served his ancestors just fine while the former imagines something bigger and better in a globalized economy, refusing to believe that size isn’t everything. Perhaps to honor them, “Against the Tide” manages to feel both intimate and large-scale when the fishermen’s struggle reflects the soul-searching of an entire nation in a brave new world and minus the flotsam they deal with in a daily basis, it is well worth catching.

“Against the Tide” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 25th at 2:30 pm at the Holiday Village Cinemas in Park City, January 26th at 6 pm at Prospector Square Theatre in Park City, and January 27th at 3 pm at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City. It will be available online from January 24th through January 29th.

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