The turtle People 75 minutes Directed by: Surabhi Sharma Produced by: Sunil Shanbag 2002
The Turtle People is ostensibly about a fishing community in village Kolavipalayam, Kerela, That help Olive Ridley turtles. Sea turtles are an endangered species (about 10,000 get bumped off by trawlers every year; the beaches they lay eggs on are unprotected); the film uses this context to familiarly invite the viewer into its story. The villagers collect Olive Ridley eggs. When the babies hatch after 8-10 weeks, they are gently guided towards the sea. Appropriately, the film focuses on how proud the villagers are of being called the 'turtle people'.
The viewer now has been eased into a narrative apparently about kindness done to animals; now the film can disturb the frame. Turtles, the viewer finds, are actually the symbol around which villagers rally to fight for their own livelihood. The Olive Ridley is just like the tiger in the forest, a flagship species allowing the entire chain of conservation to unfold. If the habitat of the turtles (the beach on which they lay their eggs) can be conserved, the people sharing this habitat would also be saved. Thus, very subtly, the film joins debates raging around conservation perspectives; its technique is like that of the people who form its subject, who without artifice and in the same breath can talk about saving the turtle and saving their homes from sand mining. The people see the struggle of the turtle to survive as their own struggle against the sand miners and the powers-that-be. When asked what the one thing is that they learn from the turtles, Babu, a bearded autorickshaw driver turned activist says: survival. The way the film is laid out, it makes the viewer feel that the villagers of Kolavipalayam are saving the turtle, and the turtle is helping peoples' protest to travel far and wide. This mutual interdependence is perhaps the crux of the film.
The narrative moves through interviews of the main activists and some villagers who support the movement against sand mining. Old photographs of protests and marches against the destruction by sand mining piece together the history of resistance. The voice over -- the filmmaker herself -- bridges the gaps. This makes the film acutely subjective; so, couldn't the filmmaker have come on screen? It might have enhanced the credulity of the personal pitch.
Another highly subjective area, specially in a growing culture of low attention spans, is the length of a film (always a matter of great anxiety for the filmmaker). This film looks a trifle too long. The sand mining issue repeatedly surfaces, though already powerfully communicated. The film appears to hit the finish line a couple of times, with the right sunset and the correct concluding narration, but takes off again on a new path -- its references to globalisation and wto diffuses the sharp arguments laid out earlier. The camera is fluid and candid. Clearly the filmmakers have spent a lot of time with their characters; the latter are very comfortable on camera. The sea is well shot, with various moods slipped into the film very creatively. Of course, one wishes one had seen the beach and the village from the sea -- the entire film is shot from the village and we see the fisherfolk going out to fish or coming back -- but this is just asking for a little indulgence! None of this takes away much from the film, which surely has a very good argument on the need to look at conservation holistically: with the people, not without .
The last shot of the film, of a mother turtle gently flippering back into the sea, moves one to reflect on the turtles who have survived 150 million years, who come and bury their eggs on populated sand beaches, and so leave their future in the care and safety of humans. How concerned are we about this responsibility bestowed upon us?