Coral Woman is an artistic documentary film that follows Uma, a female Indian artist who paints coral reefs as subjects of her art despite never having gone underwater to see actual corals. Later in her life, at the age of 49, she learns how to dive and discovers some hard truths about the state of coral reefs in India.
Since its release in 2019, the film has been shown more than 75 times in various festivals and online screenings, spurring conversations on climate change, its impact on corals, and the urgency to protect them. According to scientific data, 50% of the world’s coral reefs have died in the last 30 years due to chemical effluents, sewage, and garbage finding their way into the oceans and gradually suffocating marine life. But the existence of coral nurseries can help rehabilitate these damaged marine ecosystems.
Director Priya Thuvassery quickly realised that Coral Woman had a much larger purpose than the film team initially thought. “We felt an urgency to share information and build awareness to stem the devastation the film had revealed. Our impact plans took birth”.
Watch the full film on Cinemata:
Through Uma’s story, the team devised an impact campaign that aimed to increase awareness about environmental degradation, educate coastal communities on environmentally-friendly practices, and inspire young people to “realise their power as changemakers” and protect the environment.
To complement the film, the team created an ecosystem of awareness-building through educational toolkits, a children’s book, an interactive website, an art installation, and virtual ocean tours.
Producing the film and starting the impact campaign
Priya first learned about Uma in 2016 and found herself moved by Uma’s story and determination to learn diving later in life, “breaking many stereotypes and [defying the] patriarchy”, she said. It took Priya two years to finish Coral Woman as she needed to gain more confidence directing an underwater film and do extensive research on corals. As an independent filmmaker, she also had to work on a limited budget.
For Priya, Coral Woman was unlike any other film. “I am a filmmaker who makes a film and then moves on to make the next [one]. Once the film is done, it’s handed over to the audience. But with Coral Woman I felt more responsible, and there was a serious effort to take the film to people – not just screening the film, but to have discussions around it,” she said.
In March 2020, Priya and impact producer Anupama Mandloi started looking for partners for the film’s impact campaign at Good Pitch India. But due to COVID-19 lockdowns, they were not able to get the pledges and support they needed for the impact campaign to start.
Despite this, Uma’s passion for the project inspired them to continue with the impact campaign. Uma pledged to sell her paintings with half of the proceeds going to coral restoration work. Uma also attended the screenings and discussions to inspire others to join the campaign.
“Once, after a film screening at a university, students wrote postcards to us pledging that they will protect the ocean and coral reefs. We received hundreds of them. It was one of the most moving experiences from the impact campaign”, Priya shared.
Art as a platform for change
At Good Pitch India, the film team received a partnership offer from Avid Learning to create an illustrated children’s book that tells the story of India’s coral reefs and the dangers they face. The idea for the book came from seeing children react to the film screenings with a desire to change and help with marine conservation.
In 2021, Lubaina Bandukwala’s book “Coral Woman” was published. As of March 2022, the book has sold nearly 2,000 copies.
“The book is based on the film with the intent of drawing children into the colourful world of corals. The idea was also to create a homely super hero for the children”, Anupama said.
From Uma’s paintings to the illustrated book, art has always been a central aspect of Coral Woman’s impact campaign. The campaign also included an art residency, where artists from different disciplines will create two-piece art installations on climate change and global warming. Guided by marine researchers, community representatives, and coral reefs conservationists, the artists will create an interactive land sculpture made out of waste and a multi-purpose underwater sculpture.
The first phase of the art residency (November to December 2021) resulted in the first of two installations, titled “The Silent Scream”.
From left to right: Ramkumar Kannadasan, Impact Producer Anupama Mandloi, Sudheesh EK, Rangoli Agarwal, Midhun Mohan, Director Priya Thuvassery
“The Silent Scream” symbolises underwater destruction and is a critical commentary on humans who do not “hear the screams” of marine life. This installation was placed on the ocean bed where coral rehabilitation efforts are underway in partnership with Coastal Impact, a diving and coral rehabilitation non-government organisation based in Goa.
The first installation was placed underwater with hopes of aiding coral restoration.
The second installation is a replica of the underwater sculpture and will be made out of waste and plastic collected from the sea. Videos of the underwater installation will be projected over the sculpture. Designed to be interactive, the exhibit allows for people to walk inside the sculpture and place garbage in it.
“The replica will be modular and made for scale so that it can be easily assembled or dismantled. We will use this as a prototype for replication across other coastlines in India as well as international collaborations. We believe that these sculptures will initiate many conversations on marine conservation,” Anupama said.
Through these various initiatives, the team is able to inspire rich conversations around marine health. They are also continuing to partner with other organisations to help foster sustainable change. But the team recognises that policy change will be crucial in addressing the problem of oceans being used as garbage dumps.
“We want to use different touch points to build awareness and conversation around marine health to an extent that policy changes become inevitable”, Anupama said.
Priya also highlighted how their strategy to centre art in the impact campaign is contributing to the conversation. “As artists and media practitioners, we strongly believe in the impact of art on individuals. Sometimes you don’t have to be very loud to make a point. Art with an impact goal will do its job. This keeps us motivated”, she said.
For more information about Coral Woman and the impact campaign, visit https://www.coralwoman.com/.