A couple of years ago, I saw the movie The Shape of Water. It’s a surreal film from Guillermo del Toro, and I loved it. The protagonist is deaf, and much about her resonated for me. The underwater scenes, in particular, are haunting in their feeling of deafness. In the movie, she meets an imprisoned humanoid from the Amazon with healing powers, and she sets out to rescue them. The movie is, at its core, about social alienation — being misunderstood and misrepresented — as well as the flipside, about love — compassion, solidarity and sacrifice. It’s a beautiful film.
As we were boating out down the Amazon looking for pink dolphins, our guide Lander tells us about myths from his childhood of how some of these dolphins can take human form. Lander was born in one of the villages not far from where we are, and has a friend who swears that he’s seen such a creature transform twice in his life. According to legend, the creature is feared because it seduces local girls, who then disappear into the river. There is also a strong tradition of healing powers in this area, too, in its shamans and plants, and the creature is no exception. Its ability to heal open wounds would have been most handy instead of the stiches I had to recieve in Iquitos!
The parallels to the movie are erie. I ask Lander if he’s ever heard of it; he says no. I am humbled that I know so much of Greek and Jewish and Norse mythology, yet so little of Amazonian legend, much of which is disappearing or has been appropriated. Christopher Aguiar has written a beautiful piece on how Guillermo del Toro turned this one on its head (https://talkfilmsociety.com/articles/the-mythology-behind-the-shape-of-water).
As Lander finished his tale, I watched the river banks and reflected on how such fantastical stories have the power to shape our understanding. I first saw the movie with someone I love dearly, so naturally I internalized its themes of love, while externalizing those of alienation. Nowdays, as I prepare to return to the United States after being away for so long, it’s those themes of love that feel externalized while feelings of alienation are most deeply internalized.
But I also know that that too, as with all myths, can change.
Below: Lander sharing his people’s myths on the Amazon