[Atlanta Film Festival] Documentaries: Mermaids (2018) - Reviewed

Mermaids screened at ATLFF

An existence spent mostly submerged. Only surfacing every now and then to catch a glimpse of the rest of the world and wonder if there is a place for you amongst it all. I am not a mermaid. I am a woman experiencing life in 2018.

Director Ali Weinstein attaches a strong feminist message to Mermaids, a documentary exploring the origins of folklore and mythology, whilst introducing us to people who have found solace in a subculture which seems born from an ever increasing need to feel a sense of belonging. In doing research for the documentary, Weinstein, a former synchronized swimmer, uncovered hundreds of historical stories about mermaids from around the world. And contrary to the usual depiction of perfect ethereal beings, she uncovered a frailty not dissimilar to our own;

“Certain people have such a deep connection to the icon or archetype of the mythology. It's so ephemeral and difficult to define what that draw is. I find that for most, if not all of these stories, the themes that remain the same are that of enduring strength, a longing for freedom and independence, and an experience of loss and internal suffering. It's this duality that makes the character so relatable to women.”

The overarching question posed by the film is; 'What does the word mermaid mean to you?'

To the girls of Weeki Wachee, one of Florida's earliest attractions before the all encompassing Disney World reigned supreme, it meant sisterhood. The first real-life mermaids to swim for audiences including Elvis Presley in 1947. Utilising a stage set in one of the deepest natural underwater caverns in the US. Here they would perform a dazzling array of aquatic feats, relying on the dance and athletic training of their youth. Memories were made and life-long friendships began. For many of these women, it was this time in their lives that gave them the tools to withstand any hardships their adulthood would see them face. Alone they may be vulnerable but as the Weeki Wachee collective they were powerful.

For a new breed of women who have adopted the subculture in a more modern climate, the connotations of being a mermaid are now more important than ever. We are introduced to a mother and daughter. Both have suffered loss; the death of a son, the end of relationships and their youth. But allowing themselves to explore their new “mer-personas” they are learning how to be playful with life again and open themselves up to new opportunities. The daughter, who has found her way back to good mental health and financial independence following a difficult time works as a mermaid performance artist, in a bar and has started her own business catering for children's parties. Her mother acts as her accountant and has experienced her own rebirth whilst wearing a tail. For all intensive purposes the costume of mermaid sends a very positive body image message. It's ageless, shapeless and the only stipulation is the tail. Everyone is welcome.

A row of basking beauties, all smiling up at the camera and articulating their own feelings about why they spend their free Saturdays squeezed into hand crafted Lycra, allows us to be introduced to Jules. She looks quite at home lying in the sand next to these bubbly self confident women. Once we begin to learn about the troubled road that lead her to be a part of this tribe, we realise that this burgeoning culture of self acceptance is not only changing but saving lives. A son to an oppressive and violent upbringing and acting as a husband and father in multiple failed marriages lead to suicidal thoughts for Jules. Who is now a post-op transgender woman experiencing acceptance for the first time.

It seems that escapism and freedom of expression are an integral part of the mermaid ethos. Cookie, an abuse survivor that suffered daily agrophobia, lived the majority of her life inside a small apartment shared with her husband until she was able to break free of burdens on her past trauma and started making and modelling her own mermaid tails. Her husband provides a wonderful support system and also acts as chief tailor and production artist for the tails that allow his wife a safe space to heal and rejoin society.

The bespoke and hand-crafted artisanal production value that goes into each and every one of these tails has seen a niche develop within the cosplay community amidst the comic book, Anime and game franchise themed events and festivals. With the convention 'Merfest' opening it's doors for its 4th year running to 500 mermaid loving enthusiasts.

For the 'Tail man', the production artist and creator behind the costume worn by Daryl Hannah in Splash, he believes he is a purveyor of dreams. He comments;

“When a woman puts on the tail she says; 'My god I'm real.' And suddenly anything is possible.”

All the stories and personal accounts we hear throughout this introspective exploratory piece focus on a person carrying a badge of honour that represents victory over past trauma and pain. These people are among a growing tide of humans wanting to expand on our societies idea of who they are allowed to be. And find others who are seeking the same freedom and a safe space to heal. There is a serene and soothing quality that surrounds this film, which invites the viewer to open their minds and senses to relatively unconventional subject matter, with humanist themes at its core. Mermaids provides an excellent conversation starter for more in-depth and grittier discussions surrounding the LGBT and trans-gender communities, sexual abuse survivors and feminism in general. 

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-Erin Ring