"A mermaid doesn't need anybody; she doesn't need to call the police. If she needs to get away, she just swims," says Cookie, one of the five women featured in Mermaids. The documentary from debut filmmaker Ali Weinstein is about a community of men and women who find the freedom to be their truest selves through embodying a myth: half-woman, half-fish.
Weinstein first became interested in the mermaiding subculture after reading about Weeki Wachee Springs, a mermaid-themed amusement park that has hosted live action performances of The Little Mermaid ballet, all performed underwater. It's here we meet Vicki, the first of five women the film focuses on, a former Weeki Wachee mermaid filmed at a reunion as she shows off her latest tattoo—of Ariel, naturally.
Weinstein explained in a phone interview that she knew she needed to include these women when they "talked about their jobs performing as mermaids as if it were the most transformative experience of their lives…I was just kind of was blown away by how important this sort of part-time summer job was for these women."
According to Vicki, all these years later, the water still feels like freedom: "It's like you're flying. The movement of the water is like wind on your face and you know you can't breathe but you feel like you can."
It's easy to see why they picked Vicki: She's sharp and sassy with an infectious smile. It's a treat to watch her describe the time she performed for Elvis Presley: "Elvis asked me for my autograph, and I gave it to him." Vicki is 76, but with the mischievous grin and eye twinkle combo she deploys while saying "I gave it to him," she might as well be 19 again.
Weinstein explained in a phone interview that the mermaid is so compelling to women in particular, because "she's someone who we can aspire to be like and at the same time can see ourselves in because she has all these human qualities of suffering as well." That undercurrent of suffering is present in many mermaid myths, which are interspersed throughout the film as voiceover, and provide context around the lore fueling this community.
That was intentional on the filmmaker's part—even though, as she was making and discussing the film with friends and colleagues, "people would just be like dumbstruck at this idea that people put on tails and immediately assumed that that I was making fun of these people, which it absolutely was never meant to be. I just wanted to use five women that we follow to talk about their personal experiences and for us to just sort of be taken on their journey."
The filmmaker's decision to let the subjects speak for themselves rather than rely on experts to tell their story helps avoid a major pitfall of many documentaries on subcultures: Mermaids is not exploitative and mocking, but instead a sensitive, nuanced portrait. Many of the women featured came to mermaiding after challenges in their lives or trauma, and this culture is more than a hobby for many of the participants, it's a kind of therapy.
Cookie, who goes by the name Harlem Mermaid, was long captivated by the sea creatures but had no idea there were entire communities devoted to them. Her son told her she could find real live mermaids on the internet. Hours of Facebook searches later, she found them, and much more: a path to healing after the childhood abuse that haunted her for decades.
It also brought her closer to her her now-husband, Ralph, who even sews her a tail. Watching him do so—the delicate, careful pride he takes in it, and the hopeful, cautious joy with which he presents the tail to Cookie—is as good an argument for the existence of true love as I've ever seen on-screen. You haven't seen relationship goals until you watch Cookie and Ralph get married, after 30 years together, at Merfest. It's the world's first mer-wedding featuring man and wife swimming towards each other. They won—throw your dating apps into the sea.
Julz is another standout subject. She's a trans woman who, coping with the fallout from coming out as transgender to her family (including her kids), makes a cross-country motorcycle trip to California in search of a fresh start. We meet her in the midst of her first relationship with a partner who accepts her for who she is, on a path towards towards gender-reassignment surgery, and balancing her newfound freedom with the memories of her past, including the kids she's slowly reconnecting with.
Mermaids, visually feminine but anatomically ambiguous, are a refuge. Weinstein also noted that there's a noticeable trans contingent in the mermaid community, partly because the tail makes them feel more connected to their bodies. Watching Julz make her own tails in Mermaids is watching a woman finally have control over her own body; each scale and each stitch is a small fraction of the person she wants to, and knows she could be.
So far, the reaction from the festivals where the film has shown has been largely positive. Best of all, Weinstein says, is when someone comes up to her after a screening and says, "I did not want to come to this film, I never thought I was into mermaids, but my friends dragged me here and I loved it."
At the moment, Mermaids is showing at festivals in Canada throughout this summer, though it deserves a much wider release. Information on screenings can be found at the film's website.
Follow Ilana Novick on Twitter.