The fragility of the physical world around us and how humanity affects that fragility is at the heart of Joanna Kozuch’s documentary film, Once There Was a Sea. The film tells the tragic story of the Aral Sea. Once a vast body of water, the Aral Sea is now dying and exists as both an environmental disaster and as a more personal painful reminder to the people of Mo’ynoq, a city in northern Karakalpakstan in Uzbekistan. Kozuch visited the region three times between 2008 and 2018 and spoke to the people of Mo’ynoq who recounted to her their own stories of the sea. In Once There Was a Sea, Kozuch uses an amalgamation of the people she spoke to and tells their story.
The first person she meets is a woman called Svetlana who used to work in a factory that tinned fish. Svetlana lost her eye in a work accident and now stares without purpose into the salt desert. Next she speaks to Gulshat who runs an empty hotel, followed by a ship’s Captain who once traversed the sea and now upkeeps a monument that marks the sea’s declining levels. Finally, Kozuch meets Sergei who used to manage a factory but now drives tourists across the sea bed. Sergei takes Kozuch on a trip with his son and provides an insight into the role the government played in the sea’s decline.
Each of these encounters bestows a different emotion for the audience. We experience both yearning and nostalgia alongside sadness and anger. These emotions are elevated by Once There Was a Sea’s visuals. An animated documentary, Once There Was a Sea uses predominantly monochrome shades with minimal splashes of colour. The monochrome reflects the bleak situation – the sea was the once the bright colour that has now been erased. The animation itself is a wonderful and feels as though it was sketched straight from the director’s mind.
Once There Was a Sea is a haunting and melancholic portrait of something lost and those who feel that loss most greatly. It is also an informative documentary about our environment and how human actions can result in environmental disaster. Underneath that all is a glimpse into the dealings of the Soviet government and how those in authority abuse that power and the knock on effect that has on both people and the climate. Once There Was a Sea is a story about a sea, a story about the people whose livelihoods were dependent on that sea and a cautionary tale for all of humanity.
Director: Joanna Kozuch
Runtime: 16 minutes
Country: Poland, Slovakia