AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL 2012
By Linc Leifeste | October 24, 2012
Director: Nathaniel Kramer
Writer: Nathaniel Kramer
A contemplative, loosely structured tale of two men who have cast their lot with the sea and are finding that the life they dreamed is not the life they’re living, Where Have All the Mermaids Gone? is a beautifully shot, gritty and heartbreakingly honest documentary that treats its struggling subjects with dignity and respect. Set in the waters off Montauk and against the backdrop of the recent heart of our seemingly never-ending recession, Captain Bart Ritchie is neck deep in debt and struggling to survive by providing charter fishing services in season and captaining a decrepit commercial fishing vessel for an owner also neck deep in debt when the opportunity arises. Serving as his right hand man and first hand mate is Kurtis Briand, an engaged father of one with a second baby on the way, who is also in a financially precarious situation but wants nothing more than to be able to continue to sail with Ritchie if they can find a way to bring some money in. As well, they have a young apprentice on board, whose dream is to learn the seafaring fishing life and is doing so by sailing with Ritchie and Briand.
The documentary doesn’t attempt to set the stage fully for the viewer. You learn that there was a time not too long ago that fisherman were faring much better by overfishing the waters but as the fish populations dropped, more stringent controls were put in place and the revenue streams dried up. There is some bitterness that as the populations have increased the regulations haven’t been relaxed. But really we never know if Ritchie was ever successful or if there are other comparable fishermen who are faring better. There are allusions to prior drinking and drug problems, which along with his sea-faring life, led to the breakup of his first marriage. Ultimately, the heart of the film seems to be that he’s trying to live a life that is no longer financially feasible, a sad story of a way of life that is all but gone. And as such, it’s representative of much more than just Ritchie’s woes, capturing the loss felt but financially and emotionally when cultures are consumed by monumental economic and environmental forces.
While the overall the feeling of the documentary borders on bleak despair, there is a heartening joy in watching the crew of three in those few moments when they’re on the water, experiencing a brotherly camaraderie while casting their nets and sorting through their haul. Of course, those moments are fleeting, seemingly interrupted constantly by the calls of bill collectors or from fiances trying to figure out if the rent money is going to be there or by endless mechanical failures. It leaves you longing for a financial breakthrough for the men and an opportunity for the boy to turn his dreams into a livelihood. But be warned, as is so often the case in life, there are no happy endings.