The Captain is an intimate portrait of a polygamous family on the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria. Okech, the patriarch, struggles to evade fisheries officers and provide for his family using illegal fishing nets, while his wives, Rose and Perez, grapple with the consequences of alcoholism, infidelity, and HIV infection. The Captain presents a unique and holistic view of modern poverty through one family’s relationship with the environment, health, and personal responsibility.
A full moon reflects off the black surface of Lake Victoria as Okech and his crew battle violent waters in rickety wooden boats. The group paddles over two hours in silence to a small, desolate island and work through the night dragging fishing nets to the shore. They work in a remote location, under the cover of darkness to evade fisheries officers and make a living with illegal, environmentally destructive nets.
After decades of unchecked exploitation, Lake Victoria is on the brink of ecological disaster. Ten years ago, the World Bank launched an environmental campaign to protect the rapidly deteriorating ecosystem. Among other measures, the project aims to eliminate the illegal fishing methods of small-scale fishermen around the lake. Fishermen like Okech are forced to make a dramatic choice: evade the law and continue to degrade the lake’s ecology or stop fishing and allow their families to go hungry.
“We’re not doing it because we like it,” Rose says of her husband’s illegal fishing practices, “but because of the problems in our homes.” As Rose struggles to feed her seven children with a diminishing supply of fish, she is overcome by a more urgent crisis—her deteriorating health. When she is no longer able to look after the household, Rose makes the bold decision to get tested for HIV.
The fishing villages around Lake Victoria have the highest rates of HIV infection in Kenya; an estimated 1 in 3 people around the lake are infected with the disease. Many attribute the high rate of infection to cultural practices surrounding the fish trade. With the lion’s share of the fish catch going to the export market, women can no longer sell fish at the local market and have become increasingly disempowered. Meanwhile, the small amounts of money earned by fishermen from the export market have opened a window to prostitution and promiscuity.
An intimate conversation with Pares, Okech’s younger wife, paints a much different picture of the family’s struggles. “ It didn’t please me to be a second wife,” Pares says bluntly, “he forced me.” Over twenty years younger than her husband, Pares describes Okech as a man with many vices—alcoholism, promiscuity, and violence—which she believes are responsible for the family’s plight. With fishing pressures mounting, Okech’s health takes a turn for the worse and Pares contemplates leaving, but as a woman in a fishing village she has few options.
The Captain is a striking character study of three strong figures who reveal the pressure of living in the grips of poverty. Through their stories, the film explores the delicate balance between poverty, health, and the environment.
The Captain comes at a particularly difficult time in the fight against poverty and HIV/AIDS. Since the global economic crisis, governments and aid organizations have significantly reduced funding for HIV treatment. Many experts fear that the significant progress in fighting HIV/AIDS over the last twenty years will be reversed as the availability of cheap drugs and counseling deteriorates. A recent article from the front page of the New York Times highlights this problem.
The characters in The Captain demonstrate a unique perspective on the role of HIV medication and the importance of outside support, that will help raise awareness about the persisting crisis. Rose’s courage to learn her status and subsequently gain access to free ARV treatment demonstrates the potential for significant gains when there is access to resources and education. At the same time, Okech’s refusal to get tested demonstrates the power of the persisting stigma against HIV testing and the dire implications of living with HIV.
The economic, environmental, and health crisis facing Okech and his family can be directly linked Western influence, and we all have a role in addressing them. Insatiable demand for fish in developed countries, and the trade liberalization policies of the World Bank and IMF, has directly fueled the over-exploitation of Lake Victoria, dramatically altering social practices and leaving the lake on the brink of ecological disaster. With a surge of public interest in environmentalism in the West, The Captain presents a unique and timely perspective from people who rely on the environment directly for subsistence. The film challenges viewers reexamine our ideas of conservation, consumption, and humanitarianism.
“The Captain” comes on the heels of the award-winning film GOOD FORTUNE GOOD FORTUNE (slated to debut on the PBS series, POV July, 2010 ). The Captain delves deeper into the personal impact of extreme poverty, examining the implications of Western influence and exploring the pivotal role of personal choice and responsibility.
WHAT WE NEED
After four years, we wrapped production for “The Captain” in June 2010, and are eager to continue editing the project. We’re aiming to raise an initial $3,500 to complete a rough cut of the film. Any additional funds will go toward our ultimate goal of $5,000 to get a version ready for film festival submissions this September.
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-Jeremy Levine and Landon Van Soest