Sons of the Sea

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Brendon Daniels in Sons of the Sea.
Brendon Daniels in Sons of the Sea.
Photo supplied: Mad Moth


Sons of the Sea


DStv Box Office


3/5 Stars


Gabriel, a gifted but reclusive teenager from a poor South African fishing community, is pressured by his older brother to steal two bags of ocean treasure - abalone - from a dead man. Tracked by a corrupt government official, the boys' mission to sell the goods takes them through the mountainous region of the fabled Cape of Good Hope, and into a fight for their own survival.


For his feature directorial debut, John Gutierrez tells a nuanced, compelling story about brotherhood against the backdrop of perlemoen (abalone) poaching and smuggling. In the lucrative illicit market run by Chinese organised crime syndicates, the delicacy can sell for up to $100 per kilogram, according to Hakai Magazine. A 2018 study by Traffic found that poachers have stripped the water of at least 96 million abalone.

These numbers grab headlines, but there's a flipside to this story. That of impoverished fishing communities who are struggling to make a livelihood due to overfishing and poaching, and in turn, it creates a cycle where they turn to illegal means to put food on the table. And this is, in essence, the story of Gabriel (Roberto Kylo) and his brother Mikhail (Marlon Swarts) in Sons of the Sea. The orphaned brothers have managed to survive mainly due to Mikhail's street smarts. Gabriel, on the other hand, works at a hotel. He got a bursary to the school where he is attending as a matric student, with the hopes of becoming a photographer. When Gabriel discovers two bags of abalone in a dead man's room, the brothers' lives take off in another trajectory.

The other big player in the film is Petersen (Brendon Daniels), a government official who is trying to take care of his young son following the death of his wife. His only support system is his alcoholic mother-in-law. With medical bills piling up, Petersen pursues the boys to get his hands on the abalone.

What follows is a gripping cat and mouse game between the brothers and Petersen; among the suspense, Gutierrez – who is also the writer – explores themes such as disenfranchisement, socio-economic inequalities, displacement, toxic masculinity, and environmental issues. Sons of the Sea is beautifully shot, showing off some of Cape Town's natural beauty, the harsh terrain of the mountain, and iconic landmarks, which all aid in the storytelling.

When it comes to the acting, the cast delivers solid performances. Roberto Kylo brings Gabriel to life with his believable facial expressions and the way he carries himself. It all portrays his internal struggles between doing what's 'right' and gaining his independence, which directly conflicts with his loyalty to his brother. Marlon Swarts gives a standout debut as Mikhail, his performance brimming with underlying anger. I really felt sad for this character, being left with a younger brother to take care of; what other choices did he actually have? This is a familiar story that mirrors our reality as children head many households in South Africa.

Brendon Daniels gives a layered performance of Petersen; his vicious pursuit of the brothers is the total opposite of the scenes in which he comforts his young son and in which he mourns his wife. One thing I appreciated about the movie is that it does not pass any judgement on the characters' actions and choices; it's as if it just places a spotlight on three people who are just trying to survive at all costs.

With that said, I do wish that we had gotten a bit more of the brothers' backstory - what happened to their parents, how they came to be orphaned, and how they managed to stay together even though Gabriel is a minor. I think it would have added an extra layer of emotional depth to understand Mikhail's motivations.

You can feel both Gutierrez and the cast's heart in this movie. It's a tragic, cautionary and thought-provoking tale that will stay with you even after the credits have rolled.


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