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Are sacred places meant to be untouched by human curiosity or can we dare to explore them and try to get an inch closer to the divine? The answer seems to be twofold in Oda Kaori’s sophomore documentary feature, Cenote (Ts’onot, 2019). Diving into the natural sinkholes scattered throughout the territory of Mexico’s northern Yucatan Peninsula, the Japanese filmmaker documents experimental ways of connecting the mystical with the everyday life in a gorgeously grainy super 8mm film.
From the beginning, Oda informs the audience about the specifics of a cenote and, most importantly, their importance to the Mayans. After a large comet fell from the sky, many holes (cenotes) were formed in a limestone area, and used as a natural water source. Providing sustenance to these ancient people isn’t the only role cenotes played in the Mayan society. Soon, they started to be seen as special places imbued with spiritual power, a gateway connecting our worldly existence with the afterlife. Similarly, they were also believed to be home to a god. For these reasons, human lives were sacrificed.
It’s from this knot of tradition and folklore that Oda draws her naturalistic investigation into the cenotes’ turquoise and muddy waters. The many underwater sequences that constitute the biggest section of the documentary serve to connect the audience with this primeval ambience, where humans seem to be unwelcome or disturbing of resting souls. Mixing with a bubbly sound recording are chanting childish voices, adding eerie strokes to the watery painting, along with men and women who narrate one of the many unfortunate accidents that happened in the cenotes. Past and present memories coexist in the same moment, reinforcing the belief that cenotes might be portals to the hereafter.
The exploration of these sinkholes cannot help but be ultimately ambivalent. Whether or not Oda sets out to record all the secret niches, the bones scattered at the cenotes’ bottom and the water glistening when hit by the faint sunlight, her presence in those places seems to deny that same mystical element that she so eagerly tries to enforce. By seemingly stripping the sacredness from the cenotes, and forcing the sinkholes to be penetrated by the eye of the camera, Oda appears to deconstruct the documentary’s premise: there’s no mystery to unearth, no direct link with the land of the dead, no god resting at the bottom of the cenotes. Then, all the testimonies, voices and hallucinatory maze of water, dirt and foam point towards the myth so that the historical and supernatural importance of the cenote is once again restored. It’s in this structural ouroboros that the film draws both its fascination and inspiration.
Dancing with the underwater realm are the sundrenched sequences illustrating daily life in Mexican communities. There are farmers working in the field, women plucking chickens and men gutting cows. All of them contribute to the festive atmosphere of these hearty villages. Life is injected with warm colours, but death isn’t associated with dull hues either: graveyards are colourful resting places, while bones are cleaned by the living to take care of the dead’s soul. Portraits of men, women and children are interspersed. Are they still living? Or are the fleeting last memories of people given to the depths of the cenote? It doesn’t matter anymore, the lulling water suggests.
Check out Cenote at Festival Scope’s IFFR Bright Future showcase HERE.
Ren Scateni (@whateverren) is a freelance film journalist based in Edinburgh. She has written for MUBI, Little White Lies, Girls on Tops and other outlets.