The Summer of the Flying Fish

A film review of Marcela Said’s The Summer of the Flying Fish (El Verano de los Peces Voladores).

The Summer of the Flying Fish is a Chilean-French coproduction directed by Marcela Said. It premiered at Cannes Film Festival (2013) and won awards at the Cinema en Construction in Toulouse, La Habana Film Festival, and the RiverRun International Film Festival. The story unfolds as Manena, a young teenage girl, during her summer in the South of Chile with her family, becomes aware of her father, Pancho Ovalle’s, obsession to exterminate the carps that inhabit the artificial lagoon in their estate. Tensions begin to escalate as the Mapuche community is affected by the methods that Pancho chooses to exterminate the invasive fish species.

Far from discussing fish biology, the film speaks to the legacy of colonial oppression experienced by indigenous communities from the 16th century when Chile became a settlement of the Spanish Crown to this day. The film focuses on a Mapuche community in the south of Chile. The Mapuche people make up 84 percent of the indigenous population in Chile. They remained independent throughout the colonial period and were forced to join the Chilean state in the 1880s, under siege by the Chilean army. It took about a century for the Mapuche collective land rights to be recognized by a 1993 Indigenous Law, yet there are recurring confrontations over collective land and water rights and human rights abuses. To this day, Mapuche people record some of the lowest social and economic indicators in the country. It is no surprise to see in the film a wealthy settler family vacationing in their rural estate serviced by Indigenous employees in the house and on the property.

Chile // Source: Audley Travel

Settler colonization is a distinct form of colonization that “covers its tracks” (Veracini, 2011, p. 3). To succeed in their colonial project, settlers need to extinguish or erase the former inhabitants of the land. One of the film’s scenes illustrates the engineered amnesia that permeates the contemporary settler’s consciousness. In a casual conversation among male settlers, one of them contends: “What I don’t understand is this idea of ‘recovering the lands’. They talk about the historical debt. What historical debt? They have never owned anything!” To which another responds: “But their ancestors have.” The first man disagrees: “Noooo. They were collectors and hunters. The agricultural activity was minimum. They walk through these woods. They usufruct the woods. They were not owners.” The conversation went on as a trifle and ended in laughter.

The film is not about fish, but rather the treatment of invasive species reminds how in settler colonization projects, binary language is used to establish and justify a society of deserving “haves” and undeserving “have-nots” (Harding, 2006), of us-who-belong-here vs them-who-do-not. In one of the scenes, a boy tells Pancho that the carps “come from another place.”  Pancho explains: “Look, the carps are originally from the Amur river that divides China from Russia. They brought them here to exterminate the algae, but they didn’t tell them that they reproduced very fast.” The ironic similarity with Indigenous people’s extermination by the European settlers was not brought up in the conversation which, again, ended in laughter. In face of the threat posed by over productive invaders, Pancho justified their extermination by all means necessary, including detonating explosives in the lagoon. The violence of the method soon triggered concerns in his daughter Manena.

Violence is an underlying theme throughout the film. Pancho’s choices seem to indicate a form of internalized violence; in addition to bombing the carps, he also installed an electric fence to protect the family lakeside estate. Latent violence grows in the Ovalle household as the movie progresses with Manena realizing that not only is the carp population aggressively controlled, but their Indigenous neighbours are also being dispossessed of their land and ways of life. The film depicts institutional violence led by the state police, los carabinieros, in a raid against a Mapuche village. Inter-community violence is also visible though lopsided, as animal and human casualties are only recorded on the Mapuche side: first, a Mapuche farmer loses a sheep against the electric fence, then a Mapuche worker, Manena’s friend, loses his life, also by electrocution.

Los carabinieros de Chile // Source: Illustrado Noticias

Although this film brings to the foreground the colonial legacies the Mapuche nation faces in Chile, there are certain limitations in this representation. One of the most questionable aspects is the viewpoint from where the audience accesses the story, in this case, Manena, a settler teenage girl that in her vacation begins to perceive the injustices indigenous communities endure in her father’s land. Even though Mapuche women and men appear on screen, the privileged voice is Manena’s. This can lead us to question which voices have the power to be heard, not only in the film but in the public sphere.

Mapuche men are the indigenous characters with most presence throughout the film; in fact, Manena’s friend is the common thread that opens and closes the film. However, this is not the case for Mapuche women. Dedicated to the care work within the settler’s household, they seem to be voiceless presences with no agency whatsoever. This representation falls short given the central role indigenous women have across Latin America in standing up against both environmental injustices and gender violence, up to such a point that scholars have observed a feminization of these fights, this is, more and more women join activist manifestations. Even more so, although the protagonist of the film is a girl, the representation of all the women is an aspect that deserves consideration. Manena’s mother is a character stripped of agency by being constantly silenced by her husband who diminishes her. She drowns her sorrows in alcohol and plays no part in the family business or her children’s education.  

The Summer of the Flying Fish takes place in southern Chile, but its message is global. It speaks to institutionalized violence and systemic racism in other settler colonies including Australia, the United States, and Canada. It compels viewers to turn a critical eye on themselves. To some viewers, maybe, this could be an unsettling exercise to examine their privileges and realize their complicity in perpetuating colonial ideology. About her interest in filmmaking and politics, filmmaker Marcela Said shares that she wants to “shoot what’s invisible, atmospherical… the tension.” The film ends leaving the viewer to know more. How far will Manena go in her standup against her father? How will the Mapuche community react to the loss of one of their youths?  Said can be commended for casting light on the invisible in this atmospheric and politics-laden drama.

This article is part of our March 2021 Western Student Editorial Series – a series that showcases the works of students in the Collaborative Specialization in Environment and Sustainability program. Read more articles from this series here!

Victoria Jara is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature with a specialization in Environment and Sustainability at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. She is researching the representations of environmental injustices in Latin American contemporary women novelists and filmmakers, particularly how these artists represent oppressed groups such as girls, indigenous women and environmental refugees.

Carelle Mang-Benza is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Western Ontario. Her research connects energy transition and Indigenous political ecology, looking at the particular case of an Indigenous community who owns and operates a wind energy project in Ontario. Carelle holds a Bachelor and Master in Chemical Engineering and has under her belt many years of project and policy experience.