19 April 2013

Review: Aquaporko

I had the pleasure of attending the European premiere of Kelli Jean Drinkwater's documentary Aquaporko! at the weekend. The short won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival 2013, and should hopefully be doing the festival rounds. Go and see it if you can! I have to say that the opening sequence of underwater beauties gave my loved ones and I the chills.

Aquaporko! is the latest episode in the story of how fat femmes are pioneering fat activism in Australia's metropolitan hubs through synchronised swimming. Fat activism has precedents in synchro: the Padded Lillies were active in The Bay Area in the US, and highly visible for some time, but not so much lately. This and my own history as a synchronised swimmer has led me to follow Aquaporko with interest over the last three years. I first heard of them through Facebook. Kelli Jean was starting out with the idea of doing a queer fat femme synchronised swimming performance at the wonderful Coogee Women's Pool in Sydney. I showed her some basic synchro moves in London via Skype and later took part in an Aquaporko workshop at NOLOSE. Members of the Sydney Aquaporko troupe talked about their experiences at Fat Studies: A Critical Dialogue, a conference at Macquarie University in Sydney in September. Later, a Melbourne chapter got underway and it is this group that forms the focus of the documentary.

The women of Aquaporko look like they're having the time of their lives in the film. We follow them as they practise and perform a series of routines, contextualised with more in-depth interviews with the participants. Aquaporkos describe how the group has helped transform their relationship to their bodies, and how they have found community by swimming together and supporting each other. In performing, we see how Aquaporko is also developing fat space and community beyond the group, involving people of all sizes. Fat representation is usually predicated upon the image of the sad and lonely fatty, but Aquaporko is joyous and shows fat women at the heart of things, supported and loved, and anything but alienated from each other. I was really excited to see swimmer-scholar-activist Jackie Wykes talking about synchro and fat studies, placing Aquaporko in a lineage of queer fat activism (with my own books on display in the shot – proudface!). It was great to see so many people referenced in the film's credits, to acknowledge that it is the product of a movement, as well as the work of a film-maker.

My one reservation about Aquaporko is about the limitations of its cute, kitsch and retro aesthetic. I understand this as central to a particular construction of femme identity, perhaps one that is popular and recognisable to audiences in Sydney and Melbourne. I think cuteness works as an entry point for swimmers who may feel self-conscious, or are new to fat activism, but it also feels quite limiting to me, as if swimmers are trying to protect (themselves? Their audiences?) from the 'ugliness' of fat bodies. I felt that there was a tension in using cuteness, perhaps something about trying to negotiate a space for fat synchro swimmers beyond a poster girl healthism that is common to manifestations of Health At Every Size. I tried to imagine an Aquaporko routine that brought in a more raw, punk or grotesque edge, for example, where the swimmers relinquished their sweetness. Kelli Jean's own body of photographic work is often quite challenging in its representation of fatness, and I wondered if more of her aesthetic could be incorporated into the synchro.

Aquaporko currently swim in roped off lanes at public pools, even when they are performing. This physical marginalisation is perplexing to me. I see no reason why synchronised swimming could not be the new rollerderby, or even bigger: a reclaimed femme-centric community physical activity for all bodies. I think Aquaporko represents a blueprint for public health and 'obesity'. It's screamingly obvious that doing synchro in this way is empowering, health-enhancing and socially-connected, and that swimmers benefit from it enormously. Not only that, but it is inexpensive, and relatively accessible as long as there is a swimming pool nearby. Compared to the cost and risk of anti-obesity policy, and its miserable failure rate, Aquaporko is where health authorities and research institutions should be splashing their cash. But I say this with one important caveat: health promotion professionals without a grounding in community will make a mess of this and endanger it. Aquaporko is gold, but developing it into a broader movement without destroying its central qualities requires sensitivity, and power and autonomy must remain with the fat swimmers themselves.


sizeoftheocean said...

Charlotte, this is lovely, thank you.

I hope it doesn't sound *too* defensive of the group if I address your critiques by saying that the film is not the total reality of the group - it doesn't show the candid conversations, the expletives, the incessant dirty jokes, the fact that we rename every move with a double-entendre.

Some of the issues you raise are things we already practise - like, one of our routines is set to The Pixie's 'Gigantic', (who I count as punk-adjacent, if not actually punk). KJ couldn't put the song in the film because copyright and licensing costs, but we swam to it, splashed to it, and made fat jokes with our bodies in the water in front of an audience to it. Not raw or grotesque (I would actually love to do a synchro routine that toyed with abjection), but not exactly cute, either. Or rather, not *exclusively* cute - the cute coexists with the other stuff.

As for the roped off lanes, well, that's a purely economic matter. We can only afford to hire out two lanes, and even then only for performances, so the rest of the pool remains set-up for lap-swimmers. I kind of love the fact that you can see the general public watching us in the background of some of the performance shots - especially the little kids who are clearly fascinated by the spectacle.

Tempest Nightingale LeTrope said...

I don't know if I've the dexterity to ever do synchronized swimming, but I do love working out in the water. It's very good for someone who has certain musculoskeletal issues and fibromyalgia, as I do.
I like what they're doing. I am going to admit, though it's a bit embarrassing, that I work out in a therapy pool at my place of employment when no one else is around, because in spite of my size acceptance beliefs, the idea of allowing anyone to see me in a swim suit is traumatic to me.

Sleepydumpling said...

I'd like to see simple all-body swimming events (not necessarily organised groups or particular sports, but just a pool, and welcoming, positive access to anyone of any body type) as a public health message. I'd love to see a pool or even a city council (who manage many pools in Australia) have some kind of non-stigmatising "everyone is welcome to have a dip" promotion in the name of public health, with visible bodies from marginalised communities present in the footage, having fun doing whatever it is they like to do in the pool - paddle, laps, splash, laugh, dive, whatever.

That's the kind of public health advertising that would entice me to a particular pool on a regular basis!

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for the clarifications sizeoftheocean.

Tempest, I'm sorry to hear of the trauma. Keep on keeping on.

Sleepydumpling, sounds like a plan.