Cenote (2019), a film by Kaori Oda, is, of course, not about the ocean. It is about a different body of water than I am usually interested in, Mexican Cenotes. Cenotes are sinkholes containing ground water. Nowadays, they are popular with tourists; I remember swimming in one on a vacation in Mexico quite well, partially for the spectacular landscape, but mostly for the overwhelming amount of people that were there with me.
Why this film is nevertheless so interesting for an ocean scholar—besides that the ocean is arguably “present” at or even constitutive of places not conventionally considered oceanic—is because it is so incredibly different from the genre of the undersea documentary. Using a super 8 film, Oda’s opening scene is not a dive into an underwater world that is “brought into view” for terrestrial creatures. Instead, the long opening scene is comprised of one long slow-moving shot of moving through water while nothing ever really comes into view. And that which is seen is not so much explained away as enriched by the local stories and histories told by various voice-overs. Whereas an underwater documentary is often interested in making visible and explaining the creatures and objects that float “in” water, so to say, Oda is interested in the materiality of water itself as well as the cultures it is entwined with.
Water as texture is what we see in the long opening shot, and many subsequent shots, of Cenote. The various refractions of light and bubbles of water are not a problem to aesthetic representation here, not something to be overcome to bring into view the human and fish swimmers of the cenote—they are the aesthetic medium. Light refracts in long blue beams or rainbow-edged circles. Water, here, is form and color.
This reminds me of the work of Eva Hayward and Karin Amimoto Ingersoll, since both authors are, amongst other things, interested in oceanic/marine textures. To Hayward, texture is the remainder of passing through, the leftover of animate forces filtering through bodies and objects. For Ingersoll, the seascape is constituted as figurative layers, as signs to be read visually—a figure in her book Waves of Knowing shows us these, amongst others, as “The Textured Seascape”. In Ingersoll’s work, moreover, vision is not a mere imprint of light but rather the creative organization of environmental stimuli.
Using the many textures of water as aesthetic medium shows us some of these forces that pass-through water—light, air, bodies, stories—and this act itself is perhaps a different way of orienting in such a textured environment, an orientation away from suspended objects explained away by a dominant voice over, and towards textured seascapes enriched by histories of myth and maybe.
 https://mubi.com/films/cenote  Kimberley Peters and Philip Steinberg, “The Ocean in Excess.”  Eva Hayward, “Fingeryeyes,” 585.  Karin Amimoto Ingersoll, Waves of Knowing, 26.  Karin Amimoto Ingersoll, Waves of Knowing, 128.
All images in this blog are screenshots from the film.
Ingersoll, Karin Amimoto. Waves of Knowing: A Seascape Epistemology. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016.
Hayward, Eva. “Fingeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals.” Cultural Anthropology 25, no. 4 (2010): 577-599.
Peters, Kimberley, and Philip Steinberg. “The Ocean in Excess: Towards a More-than-Wet Ontology.” Dialogues in Human Geography 9, no. 3 (2019): 293–307.