VALLAM KALI (meaning SNAKE BOAT RACE) is a lyrical and dynamic feature documentary film that introduces a global audience to the most famous tradition of the remote backwaters of Kuttanad, Kerala, in southern India. The story celebrates a harmonious, culturally and ethnically diverse, peaceful region through its most quintessentially defining sport: snake boat racing. “Chundan vallam” known outside Kerala as “big snake boats,” are icons of Kerala culture. Snake boats are canoe-like traditional war boats used in a series of famous annual boat races and measuring 100 to 120 feet long, holding up to 100 rowers. Each of the villages in the Kuttanad region has its own snake boat, in which they take great pride. The labor of months of hard training, villagers race these boats along the lakes and rivers and each village sponsors a team and a captain. One of these boats’ captains, Sunil Kumar, narrates the lore, craft and wider meaning of his task and sport, culminating in the exciting race itself. In this way audiences are plunged into the center of an immersive world of boat race training, with Sunil as authentic and enthusiastic guide.
Proud, celebratory representation of authentic South Asian culture has never been more important. This film’s relevance for American public television is timely, in a moment of pervasive anti-immigrant hostility. At this time South Asian Americans continue to lack significant public television programming. Few programs exist that are presented by South Asians. This film is produced and directed by a second generation Malayalee (meaning someone from Kerala) and is strikingly authentic in tone, language and style. Countering stereotypes about India, VALLAM KALI exudes pride in rich, beautiful and uplifting local cultural heritage. For many Europeans, and some Americans, Kerala is a popular tourist destination. Kuttanad, where the film is set, is more remote, and less well known. Featuring an original Classical Indian score and indigenous shadow puppetry, the film interweaves history with present-day racing, complete with smartphones and television news coverage. Here water and boats are the lifeblood of local people. VALLAM KALI is a hymn to a sustainable world menaced with disappearance, in which man and water still largely coexist in harmony, a coexistence kept alive by the tradition of snake boat racing. Today Kuttanad’s rivers, once a pristine source of drinking water 25 years ago, are increasingly polluted. What will happen to this region as pollution and climate change become even greater problems? This film has the potential to help protect, support and preserve low-lying Kerala from both pollution and threats to its ecosystem and from devastating floods. In short, VALLAM KALI serves to bridge this beautiful, deeply traditional region with the rest of the world at a time of great urgency for people and landscape alike.
About the Filmmakers
Phill Abraham is an independent filmmaker whose chief focus is producing and directing. A Texas native, he has lived and traveled around the world immersing himself in different cultures and places. His background in psychology has informed his discovery of people through personal connections. As a documentary filmmaker problem solving and exploration are par for the course. As a multilingual child of immigrants, he learned to see the world from a diverse perspective.