Olivia Wyatt is a US film editor, producer and director. Winning awards for her work, Olivia has participated in many international group exhibitions, national solo exhibitions, and had her work screened festivals and cinemas all over the world.
Sailing a Sinking Sea is Olivia’s most recent feature-length film focusing on the Moken people of Thailand and Myanmar, exploring their mythology, language, and relationship with the sea. Olivia worked with Chicago’s Bitchin’ Bajas and dublab to create the soundtrack, which is available along with the DVD at Drag City.
Lara C Cory interviewed Olivia about the film:
What first drew you to the Moken people and inspired you to make a film about them?
I first read about the Moken in an article following the Indian Ocean Tsunami in 2004. I fell in love with them because they have such a deep and symbiotic relationship with the sea that almost every single one of the Moken survived the tsunami.
It was thanks to their ancestral wisdom, shamanic dreams, and ancient songs that the Moken predicted and knew how to survive the Laboon (their word for tsunami). On land they headed to higher ground and at sea they sailed to deeper waters. This tsunami took everyone else in the region, including modern scientists and meteorologists, by surprise and not many people beyond the Moken and the people they rescued survived.
I continued to read about this community over the following years and noticed that their population was declining and that’s when I started to gather funding to create the film.
As a filmmaker I am dedicated to taking the viewer on dreamy and psychedelic journeys into communities that are on the brink of extinction. I want my audience to fall deeply in love with each community I capture and to feel a great sense of loss when they realize these communities are becoming engulfed by modernity.
How long did you spend with the Moken making the film? It looks like a paradisiacal existence, but can you tell us about some of the hardships you experienced?
I was there for four months. The most challenging part of it was finding a translator in Thailand who would live and work in the communities with me. I did not have this problem in Myanmar, because I was forced to go with a government-sanctioned translator for my entire visit. In both Haiti and Ethiopia I had translators who stuck with me to the ends of the earth. The main difference I found was that in Thailand, I could only find female translators to work with, and in every other country I have worked male translators.
There was one other challenging element. I’m pretty good at manifesting what I am envisioning or seeking when working on a film. It’s seems that when I dream about shooting something, then there it is, right in front of me ready to be filmed. But things were a bit different for part of the filming of Sailing a Sinking Sea.
For half of the time that I was in Thailand and Myanmar another DP, who also happened to be boyfriend at the time, was with me. On many occasions I remember feeling a disconnection from the ability to manifest my visions that had guided me on previous films. I would have an idea for something and he would say that he didn’t think it was possible, then we would spend a week searching for it and not find it. I would go into meditative-like states trying actualize my vision, and still nothing. I think this happened due to the fact that we were intertwined romantically and he disbelieved whole-heartedly in the possibility of what I was imagining. I would beg him to be positive about it, but I think ultimately he just couldn’t be. Believing with every ounce of your heart is a very powerful thing!
Can you tell me more about your abilities to manifest your visions?
When I was in Ethiopia I went to a museum and read about a Zar spirit possession ceremony and decided I wanted to document one. The government had been cracking down on it and jailing followers of this line of faith. My translator said he had heard of a shaman who lived high up on a hyena-invested mountain that continued to practice the Zar ceremonies. Nobody my translator knew had ever met this man, but he was willing to try and take me there. So we took a bus, which was more like a van, that night to try to find him. Along the way we, along with several other buses, got jailed because the roads were so damaged that it’s illegal to travel on them at night. The police wanted us to wait until dawn. I don’t know what I did, but in a language uncommon to all of the police officers I somehow convinced them to set our bus, and our bus only, free before dawn. We got back in the bus and everyone started chanting “Ferengi” (foreigner).
We arrived at the town nearest the shaman’s mountain. We put our stuff down and took a motorcycle to the base of it. One of my translator’s friends met us at the base, he was from the neighbouring village that rested just below the shaman and said that nobody in his village had ever even met this man.
He went with us to the top. The hyenas were real and we only had a few hours to get up there and back down before they crept out of the night. When we arrived, the shaman’s wife became hysterical, she was screaming and crying and protecting her children. She thought I was there to take them away or something. The Zar shaman laughed at her and then looked at me and said “I know who you are and I know why you are here, the spirits told me you were coming in my dream last night. Come back tomorrow with some tobacco and gifts and we will have a spirit possession ceremony.”
To speak on spiritual realms through dreams–not many things are more magical than that in life.
I think one of the reasons I was able to work like that is because I was traveling alone with just a translator. It allows me to connect more intimately with the a country and its communities.
What was the most life-changing or intense experience you had on the shoot?
I awoke from a deeply profound dream while riding the bus down to the part of Thailand where I would meet the first Moken village. I dreamt that I saw a fish barely swimming in a glass fish bowl. I thought to myself that he must be hungry. I went over to feed him and he bobbed up to the top of the fish bowl gasping for air and said, “please I have no water I am thirsty and I can not breathe.” At first I thought “what is he talking about? He is surrounded by water?” But on closer inspection he was swimming in milk. I awoke in tears.
Working with the Moken was the first time I saw the very part of nature that the community was connected to dissipating around them. The impact of climate change on the indigenous communities and the nature surrounding them was alarming. The water got so warm in that region of the world that it bleached and killed the coral, taking along with it a vast majority of the sea life that the Moken were so accustomed to eating.
It breaks my heart the way we have destroyed the planet due to overconsumption and the commercialization of resources. For my next project, Jasmine on Jupiter, I am doing a multimedia series that involves sailing around the world to explore the effects of climate change on coastal communities, plant species, and animals. Action-based initiatives will accompany each element of the project and it is my dream that it will inspire change.
Tell us about the incredible soundtrack. Did you gather all the field recordings yourself? And how involved were you with the process at dublab?
I collected the audio and video for the first portion of the trip and then once my ex-boyfriend arrived we took turns collecting audio and video. I had handmade hydrophones for underwater recording, one lavalier for interviews and a rode NT4 stereo mic for music.
I don’t know if it’s a positive attribute, but I get in pretty deep on every role that goes into creating my films. I sent Mark from dublab, all of the tracks I wanted to use and he sequenced them, then sent them back to me. I made a tweak here and there and then I sent that material to the Bitchin’ Bajas for final notes and then it was off and out into the world.
For more reading about Olivia and her filmmaking, here is an interview on BOMB where she speaks to her friend and collaborator Will Oldham.