Monday, December 15, 2008

The Squid Daddy's Labor Room

Taiwanese director Ke Chin Yuan has created a documentary that is very casual in its appeal. The topic is highly specific and practically unheard of, but out of this emerges a very personal story: a group of scientists create artificial kelp patties out of huge stalks of bamboo in order to provide the Big Fin Reef Squid a place to lay eggs. The squid have been forced out of their usual habitat by accumulating trash, fish nets and pollution, and the scientists deem it necessary to create a new spawning ground in order to balance the ecosystem.

As it ends up, it is actually illegal to lay unregistered artificial reefs, and this kind of ecological sustenance does not pay very well. The head scientist often risks his physical well-being for this bizarre passion project, and a crew volunteer dies after taking on a job as a diver to support his family. "The Squid Daddy's Labor Room (產房)" drifts around to explore our relationship with music, the beauty of the things we don't usually see, and the sadness that comes with it. All of this in a calm fifty four minutes linked together by a scientist playing guitar in his garage and singing in the ocean.

Maybe the most interesting thing about the documentary is the economy of the sea. These scientists are literally translating the sea into dollars, whether that be through diving, research, or photography. The respect they have for it goes beyond nebulous environmental arguments and enters a realm that even the most stoic humanist would be able to understand: capital gain. This, I think, is an aspect of the conservationalist mindset that is not often talked about.

To everyone else, it is a vague statement that without our environment, or without our ocean, we could not survive. To these people, its importance is much more tangible. It is also a source of income, a very direct means of support. When the very thing you are studying gives back to you your entire life, you have an intimate understanding of just how important it actually is.

The charm of "Squid Daddy" comes from its simplicity and its ability to meander effortlessly between genres. At points it is an educational film, sometimes it is an emerging portrait of the head scientist. Politics interfere with and recede from the Labor Room project, but the film takes its time away from this to simply listen to music, reflect on loss, and observe nature at work. The opening image of the film encapsulates it nicely: a diver, thirty feet below, leans back and blows the under water equivalent of a smoke ring up to the surface. The camera drifts up and observes the bubble's ascent, and the scientists gather around a camp fire to play and sing.

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