“Skin of Water” (پوست آب) Somayeh’s film about grief and the loved ones we lose

WordsJoe Zadeh

Grief is rarely a simple process. It comes with feelings of guilt and regret, and often with an onslaught of memories, both good and bad. Iranian artist Somayeh’s film “Skin of Water” (پوست آب) looks to capture the multitude of emotions that come with loss. She tells Joe Zadeh how she tackled such complex themes in just eight minutes, and how she hopes to draw the viewer in with beautiful visuals so they can confront this difficult subject head on.

The film opens with a man in his late 30s staring off camera. Light, reflected from water, dances on his face and the wall behind him. He watches as an iridescent blue butterfly glides through the air and lands on his outstretched hand. The camera cuts to a swimming pool, with debris floating on its surface, and a few plucked notes from a warped sitar are heard. So begins the evocative short film, “Skin of Water,” written and directed by the artist Somayeh. And in that opening scene, almost everything that will occur in this poetic yet chilling work is foreshadowed.

Born in Iran and based in the UK, Somayeh is a writer, director and editor. She grew up in Tehran, but left at the age of five when her father was offered a scholarship for a PHD in the UK. “I remember my childhood in Tehran so vividly, because its such a vivid city,” she tells me. “People won’t believe this, but I have very clear memories before the age of five. They are like moments or vignettes…I remember being sent to the shop to get tomatoes. I remember standing on a stool to help my mum wash the dishes. I remember the lizards on the balcony. I remember the mehmoonies [Iranian dinner parties].”

She didn’t return to Iran for 21 years. Then, at the age of 33, she went back on her own and traveled across the country. “It completely turned my life upside down, and I felt an awakening on so many levels,” she says. “It sounds obvious now: You go back to your identity and you find a sense of belonging, but it wasnt clear to me at the time.”

The story of “Skin of Water” is simple: a man grieves his child and blames himself for their accidental death. He hides the true circumstances of the accident from his wife—that he was distracted as the child played by the pool—and becomes utterly consumed by guilt. 

But the story doesn’t follow a traditional structure, and instead unfolds in a nonlinear manner. This blurring of moments tries to communicate something visceral and poetic, something clearly about grief and guilt, yes, but something beyond that too—about how within everything you can also find its opposite. Within joy, fear, within peace, chaos, within beauty, pain. “I think a lot of my work is a representation of beauty and pain,” Somayeh says. “I think thats who I am. I like to aesthetically seduce an audience and then punch them.”

A poster for Somayeh's film “Skin of Water”, including an image of butterflies flying before a clear blue sky, the film's title overlaid.
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The cinematography mixes long pregnant shots with short close-ups—of hands touching, of tea being poured, of a child banging their cutlery on the table—that give the impression of broken memories being recalled. Similarly, the sound design is sometimes light and textured, at other times claustrophobic. “I put so much importance on sound,” says Somayeh. Ordinarily, editors put temporary sounds over their edits to guide the sound designer when they come to work on it. “I don’t do that,” she says. “I think it takes away from my collaborator giving me something I might not expect. Maybe it makes the process longer, but I enjoy allowing that space.”

“I want to live in a space between surrealism and realism,” Somayeh says. “Iran is deeply rooted in realism, and I want to continue that legacy, but Im also influenced by Western cinematography and Western sound design. I want to be the bridge; I want to be part of the next generation that seamlessly infuses these two worlds.”

At the heart of “Skin of Water” is the butterfly, which appears at each of the film’s most decisive moments. Why butterflies, I ask her? “I think its fragility, beauty.” She intensely researched the butterflies she wanted to appear in the film, before settling on an iridescent blue species. “It was dark but so beautiful,” she says. 

They trialed filming real butterflies: “We actually bought the caterpillar, and my DOP filmed it cocooning into a butterfly in his house,” she says. But when the global creative house, Coffee & TV, invested in the film, it made sense to utilise their VFX expertise and render the butterflies in CGI so that they could realize the film’s stirring final scene. In it, the grieving father stands next to a swimming pool and looks up to the sky as thousands of butterflies descend upon him and completely engulf his body. 

“I didn’t want to say just one thing at the end, I wanted it to be open to interpretation,” says Somayeh. “There’s the negative: that he was so consumed by guilt that the engulfing was his metaphorical death. But Ive heard other interpretations. Some saw it as a release; the freedom of truth. Finally, hes released the lie hes been holding on to. And I think that has a beauty to it as well.”