Jeroen van Velzen did not have an everyday childhood. In part, he was the happiest boy on earth when he lived with his parents in the coastal area of Kenya and heard the wonderful stories of the housekeeper. But then his parents reluctantly sent him to boarding school in England because it would be a better environment in which to grow up. He had to sing English songs in church and had a clock and a bell determine where he needed to be. He learned to walk neatly in a row, to put his hand in the air if he wanted to say something and then if he could say something, he had to start with “Sir” or “Madam”. Jeroen ate sausages and kidney beans for breakfast and exchanged his summery comfortable clothing for a boring uniform. The only way to escape this horrific and lonely reality was his dreams and he made good use of them. He dreamed his world together, so that reality was bearable.
In 2009 Jeroen van Velzen graduated from the Netherlands Film and Television Academy. The making of the documentary “Wavumba” (Those Who Smell of Fish) offers him the opportunity to return to the land where he was so happy. His goal is to evoke the feelings he had as a child: the power of daydreaming, the art of creating your own fantastic world.
Kenya consists of two worlds: a human world and a spirit world. These coexist as a mirror image and when the sea is very still, you can see the other world, so is the belief. The housekeeper used to tell Jeroen magical fairy tales about the most sacred island of Wasini, where she came from, and where people now come from far and wide to heal. As a child, Jeroen believed in stories such as “drinking sea water every day gives you special powers”. His greatest hero of that period was the old fisherman Gatete, with whom he regularly went sailing. “He knew all the secrets of the sea, if he had drunk a sip of sea water he could talk to fish.” Gatete belonged to the Wavumba tribe. There is now only one real fisherman living on Wasini, who is called The Commander, but whose real name is Masoud.
Masoud says he once caught a basking shark and is determined to do it again before he dies. His stories are told with great enthusiasm, he is confident that he will soon be welcomed as a hero when he takes a 400 kilo basking shark into the village on his own, just as before. Despite the fact that the people in the village advise against him, Jeroen wants to go with him to the sea to catch another basking shark, just like in the stories of the past. Besides Masoud, Jeroen meets Masoud’s grandson Juma, who works for his grandfather. Masoud is very present, but the much less talking Juma also makes an impression. He has a lot to endure from his grandfather, who constantly criticizes and denounces him. Understandably, the director does not intervene or comment, he merely lets the camera register. The only right choice, of course, but it still makes for an uncomfortable feeling to witness these arguments.
Lennart Verstegen’s camera work is unparalleled: both the close ups of the inhabitants of Kenya who have their say, and the Kenyan environment. It contains a beautiful recording of a crab that would not look out of place in a BBC Earth documentary and the scenes in and on the water have an enchanting beauty.
With “Wavumba”, Jeroen van Velzen has made a very personal, yet interesting document. The stories of the Kenyans are special. Masoud and Juma leave a lasting impression on the viewer and the old fisherman’s persistence and unshakable faith that he will succeed is admirable. “Wavumba” offers a fascinating glimpse into another world, both on a spiritual and cultural level.