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A Sensory Trip Down Memory Lane “By Water”

Still from "By Water" featuring art of a woman in black and an old man on a chair in yellow.

Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

Los Angeles, Feb 1 – I bloom. I flower. I grow. I thrive.

These four short sentences are etched into a notebook near the end of the animated short By Water, which premiered at Sundance 2023 as part of the Animation Short Film Program. The intensely personal experimental short follows an unlikely hero’s journey into his subconscious, where each memory becomes a cathartic vehicle for reconciliation and healing for himself and his sibling.

The story stems from the writer/director Iyabo Kwayana’s relationship with her brother, who has a mental disability and whose whereabouts were unknown for three years. After an unexpected voicemail 3 years after his disappearance, Kwayana made the conscious decision to honor his message and create By Water as a way to complete her brother’s story.

It begins with three intimate family photos of Kwayana’s family – past and present. As we hear Kwayana’s brother over voicemail pitch a movie idea, we slowly realize that the animation is his story come to life.

What follows is Kwayana and her director of animation Charlotte Hong pushing the boundaries of storytelling to its absolute limit. We travel into his mind via a breathtaking hand-drawn dreamscape, where a ruffled man trudges through a colorless city. He is bathed in different shades of golden yellow, like a Jackson Pollock abstract expressionist painting confined by a thin black pen into the shape of a man.

During his trek, he crosses paths with the scents of different women, each unlocking a Proustian memory of his childhood within him, whether it be playing with play-doh as a kid or eating vanilla ice cream in his hometown.

Shortly after, the film cuts to live action shaky handheld phone footage of a hand covering the brightness of the sun from the lens, as if to symbolize that the world shined too brightly for him, that it was never quite accessible.

Next, we travel back to the animated world as we see what is presumably a substitute for the creator herself,  a woman painted by the colors of space, at a typewriter. The more she types his story, the more the flowers bloom around her.

We then follow the golden bathed man back into civilization, where everything is now slightly more colorful. He watches a TV that shows real footage of an African American woman singing at a podium. The soul of her voice unlocks a passageway into a cave with flowing water, where pink heart shaped flowers fall from the sky. He is now devoid of his golden hue that we’ve become accustomed to.

As he writes his thoughts down into a notebook, the animated image of black birds taking flight becomes interposed with a real-life photo before solidifying into an animated image of a brown house. The energy of the man has been transferred to his environment. The film fades to black as we hear the man say that he feels most at home “when he has space.”

Said Kwayana, “This film is a ritual and a prayer of happiness and wellness for my sibling. It is also a prayer for my wholeness as I try to find ways to support him on his journey. Through making this film I had a chance to hear his brilliance and remember his wholeness. Through the creation of fantastic new worlds, the interplay between our imaginations in the making of this film became a vehicle for my personal transformation and healing.”

By Water is reminiscent of something you would likely see at an art gallery at the Museum of Modern Art. It captures the feeling of waking up from a dream, when you don’t know precisely what happened, but you feel different, compelled even. It points to past memories and future possibilities. It merges the inescapable past with the ever-changing present. And most of all, it creates a telepathic connection into Kwayana’s internal journey of processing the memory of her brother.

I bloom. I flower. I grow. I thrive.

Meet the Author

Jeremy Hsing

Jeremy Hsing is an Entertainment and News Media Apprentice at RespectAbility. Hsing is a graduate of UCLA with a specialty in sci-fi/drama TV writing. He is passionate about using his psychology background and lived experience as a second-generation Taiwanese immigrant to amplify the voices of underrepresented communities. When Hsing started his undergraduate education, he had a series of debilitating panic attacks that led him to seek professional mental health resources and was then diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. Since then, he has unlearned the stigma surrounding mental health and devotes his life to telling stories to educate and inspire others to seek therapy in hopes of achieving emotional catharsis.

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