Cenote/ Ts’onot (2019) review [Japan Cuts 2020]

Introduction

With her work, Kaori Oda often aims to explore the complex aspect of human memory – memories as being forgotten, the memories as being in the process of being made, the way people deal with memories, … etc.. While her first feature film, Aragana (2015), did not explicitly deal with the notion of memories, her second feature, Cenote (2019), deals with the fabric of memories in a very evocative way.

Japan Cuts 2020

Review

Cenote is a narrative, like the title implies, about cenotes. Of course, it is not about cenotes as such – the cenotes as real presences, but about the (symbolic) position these cenotes have within the societal fabric of the present and the past. But first things first, what are cenotes? Cenotes are sinkholes that are, in most cases, filled with clear pristine water filtered by the limestone rocks. These sinkholes form part of a vast underground river network that runs from the north of the Yucatan Peninsula to the south, where it ‘empties’ into the Caribbean.

Cenote (2019) by Kaori Oda

These cenotes had a rather complex function within the societal and religious system of the Maya. The Maya considered these cenotes as mouths that opened into the otherworld inhabited by Chaak, the god of life-giving rain. To appease this god and ask for rain, these Cenotes were sometimes used for sacrificial offerings – many skeletons and other ritual material (jewels, pots, clothes, and sculptures) have been found in these cenotes. Other cenotes were used as a water supply source. But how do the people currently living around these cenotes view these cenotes and integrate them in their daily life and societal/religious beliefs?  

The composition of Cenote – shot with a 8mm camera, is experimental in the sense that Oda aims, with her shots, to play with the visual elements (i.e. a play with water-reflections, a play with the interaction between light and water, and a play with shadow and light) of the cenotes. By emphasizing this visual aspect, by thoughtfully playing with the visual potential of these cenotes, Oda creates a kaleidoscopic and truly mesmerizing visual experience. One could even say that her experimental composition succeeds in echoing the otherworldly and the mysterious mythical dimension of these sinkholes (Cine-note 1).  

Cenote (2019) by Kaori Oda

The otherworldly atmosphere of Cenote is also subtle emphasized by the sound-design. The muffled or ‘distant’ sounds under and above water, the reverberations of sounds in the cenotes, as well as the evocative and mysterious ‘narrative’ voices gives the spectator the sense of being somewhere else, somewhere on the edge between the world of the living and the world of the dead (Narra-note 1).  

The otherworldly atmosphere of Cenote is also subtle emphasized by the sound-design. The muffled or ‘distant’ sounds under and above water, the reverberations of sounds in the cenotes, as well as the evocative and mysterious ‘narrative’ voices gives the spectator the sense of being somewhere else, somewhere on the edge between the world of the living and the world of the dead (Narra-note 1).  

In fact, the interaction between the explorations of the mystical cenotes, the evocative sketching of the people living their life around these cenotes and their traditions and (death) rituals, and the lingering otherworldly voices of the past has no other aim than to put us, as spectators, on the crossroads of the present and the past, the living and the dead, the history as being made and the history as already forgotten. Oda’s Cenote succeeds in letting us experience these crossroads from the perspective of the cenotes, the real element that binds as symbolic element the present and the past together.      

Cenote (2019) by Kaori Oda

Cenote is a beautiful experimental documentary exploring the position of life and death within the Mayan society of the past and the current society. Both societies, while structurally different, are linked together by (the need to symbolize) the real enduring presence of the mesmerizing cenotes. Oda’s narrative stands out due to its kaleidoscopic exploration of these sinkholes and the evocative way in which the makes the past collides with the present.

Notes

Narra-note 1: Besides the mysterious voice of the past, the narrative also features the voices of people living nearby cenotes. The stories these people tell do not only emphasize the centrality of these cenotes within their lives (e.g. for resting and for drinking) and their believes, but also make the link between death and cenotes explicit. These stories emphasize that the cenotes (due to the current of the water) takes (many) lives.

Cine-note 1: There are some technical impurities in the composition. Luckily, these moments do not detract from the overall experience Oda offers.

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