‘It Took Everyone in the Region by Surprise, Yet the Moken Survived’

By Sam Cartmell 27 December 2014

Olivia Wyatt is an American filmmaker and photographer originally from Little Rock, Arkansas. Her current project, a documentary film titled “Sailing A Sinking Sea,” explores the culture and mythology of the Moken, or “sea gypsies,” of Thailand and Burma—a nomadic group numbering only a few thousand who live for long periods at sea.

When a devastating tsunami hit 10 years ago on Dec. 26, 2004, the majority of Moken living off the coast of Thailand survived, despite their villages being swept away. The Irrawaddy contributor Sam Cartmell spoke with Wyatt about the film and her experience living with Moken communities as modernity closes in.

Question: How did you come to make an experimental documentary with the Moken people from southern Thailand?

Answer: I first read about the seafaring nomadic community, the Moken, after the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in December 2004. It took everyone in the region by surprise, yet the Moken survived. They survived due to their mythology, their ancestral wisdom, their shaman’s dreams, their symbiosis with nature and their ancient songs.

Nothing modern predicted nor was able to prepare people for the disaster when it came. I thought it was so beautiful that one of the smallest ethnic communities in that region had such an innate knowledge of surviving an upset sea.

The Moken not only predicted the tsunami, but they are aquatic super heroes, according to some researchers—they can swim farther and see farther than any other human being under water. The Moken live in little wooden boats with their entire family the majority of the year and during monsoon season sleep on islands in houses set on stilts.

As a lover of indigenous communities and the sea, I was captivated by the Moken. I continued to read about them as the years passed and discovered that their life was rapidly becoming engulfed by modernity. I read that their population was in decline, that their communities were becoming government-endorsed tourist attractions and that governments were also controlling how often they fished and how much they made from selling their fish.

I discovered that many of them were no longer nomadic and read that many Moken were dying. It saddened my heart to read all of this. I knew that soon we wouldn’t be able to differentiate Moken from [people in] the rest of the world and that their traditions, life-saving stories, mythology and songs were disappearing. I decided I wanted to make a documentary exploring their mythology and culture. It took three years, me losing almost everything in Hurricane Sandy and my friend Will Oldham believing in me and the project before I would actually make the dream a reality.

I went and stayed with 13 different Moken communities in the spring of 2013 and documented everything I could. I interviewed village elders, mothers, lovers, and teenagers about their mythology and recorded as much music as possible.

Q: There are some great singing and percussion performances in the film. Can you talk about the music in the film and the role of music in Moken culture?

A: Many members of the Moken community performed several of these songs [in the film] during ceremonies and some songs were sung during interviews to illustrate something to me. There are a few songs that blend Moken [style] with traditional southern Thai styles. My favorite songs come from the ceremonies and generally [involve] free form call and responses between a man and a woman.

I found these songs to always have a sense of humor. There is a song about a ‘shrimp’ and a ‘crab’ becoming new lovers and hiding from each other and the singers are actually referring to male and female genitalia. There are Moken songs for everything. There is even a song Moken sing to the fish while spear fishing.

Songs are very powerful among the Moken community. In fact, there is one song that children sing to call the waves, and some elders feel that song carries enough energy to create a tsunami. It is also interesting to me that within the Moken community women are the percussionists.

The Moken used to have guitars made of coconuts and I searched high and low for one. I even traveled six hours by boat to an island to find one [but] when I got there they said, ‘We used to have one right here, but someone stole it.’

Q: How does your film deal with the political and economic pressures faced by Moken and other nomadic and semi-nomadic communities?

A: I believe ethnic communities, regardless of where they are, should be allowed to exist on the land that their ancestors also called home. There are so many battles the Moken have to fight— missionaries, modernity, governmental sources, non-governmental agencies—the right to land shouldn’t be one of those struggles.

The films I create are meant to celebrate cultures rather than exploring the atrocities surrounding them. I feel that the news and other films do a good enough job of covering that aspect. With ‘Sailing A Sinking Sea,’ I only explore Moken mythology and music, though several of the Moken interviewed do mention the challenges they face today due to political, economic, and even environmental factors.

While these issues are briefly touched upon, they are not a central focus. The world is getting smaller and unfortunately we cannot [stop] these factors [from affecting] their lives, but it is my hope that through sharing and celebrating how beautiful and unique the Moken community is, it will cause others to want to approach it delicately and in a way that maintains the distinctiveness of the community versus destroying it.

Q: Has ‘Sailing A Sinking Sea’ been completed? What are your plans for the film?

A: I have just finalized a cut of the film, however I still need to do audio mastering and color correction. I have applied to many festivals and am hoping to be selected to show my film. My main goal is to have a DVD release of the project and I would like to have screenings on the Moken islands. One village elder said that in his village, which is on the mainland and often referred to as Moken, even the Moken children no longer speak the language and they are losing a sense of pride for their ancestry. He felt that the project could help make them feel honored to be who they are and want to carry on their traditional ways. I truly hope this is the case!

Sam Cartmell co-founded and regularly contributes to The Archive of Southeast Asian Music (