Trying to Stay Afloat

By Monty Majeed

Where’s the fun in chasing a single ball along the ground? To ten-year-old Giovanni, football is boring. So is karate, unless "it involves murder". Instead, Giovanni has his eyes on a spot in the synchronized swimming team, competing in the Dutch National Championship. Having harbored this dream for four years now, Giovanni is just one final test away from being certified. Astrid Bussink’s short documentary GIOVANNI AND THE WATER BALLET (Netherlands, 2014), presented in the Berlinale Generation, follows the boy as he readies himself for the big test, just four weeks away as the movie begins.

"You will make headlines," Giovanni’s girlfriend Kim, with whom he is "going steady,” tells him excitedly. If he passes the test, Giovanni would become the first boy in his country to break into the competitive world of synchronized swimming, a sport dominated by girls. Unlike other boys his age, Giovanni gets along with his teammates and thinks that girls are fun—chasing one another under water. But Giovanni is still very much isolated in this world of glittery swimsuits, nose clips, and noisy giggles. Bussink captures this beautifully in a scene where Giovanni splits from his chattering teammates to go to the boys’ locker room to change after practice. He stands alone in the blue-tiled room, drying himself with a towel as his teammates’ voices ring loudly from the adjacent girls’ locker room. Giovanni's story unfolds breezily, interlaced with humor and accented by an energetic background score. Bussink hits the bullseye by interspersing the tense pool practice sessions, in which Giovanni struggles to stay afloat, with scenes that capture the innocent banter between Giovanni and Kim, striking a fine balance in capturing the stress and relief in the boy's life. Most of the film’s humor stems from conversations between Giovanni and the ever-supportive Kim, who together, contemplate the meaning of relationships, dreams, and life. Although Bussink never shows Giovanni's parents, it’s mentioned that they’re okay with his quirky passion. Still, exploring that angle of Giovanni’s story would have helped tie up the film’s loose ends.

Thanks to the refreshing underwater sequences—tastefully shot by cinematographer Diderik Evers, a Berlinale Talents alumnus—the film has a polished look. Because of the choreographed swimming set pieces, and Bussnik's energetic and novel use of music, the film might appear staged to some. But as Godard has said, all good documentaries tend toward fiction. In 17 minutes, GIOVANNI AND THE WATER BALLET both entertains and encourages us to follow our dreams—even if we are the only ones chasing them.