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Wawata Topu – Mermaids of Timor-Leste


Secretariat of the Pacific Community / EU







Visual Anthropology

Humanitarian & Development

Type of Work


Film Direction

Film Production


Video Editing


Social Media




Film Festivals & Screenings



  • Les Aventuriers de la Mer (Lorient, France)




  • Oceanographic Adventure at Océnopolis (Brest, France)

  • Santa Marta Lighthouse Museum (Cascais, Portugal)

  • 8th Festival Pêcheurs du Monde (Lorient, France)

  • FACA (Açores, Portugal)




Wawata Topu – Mermaids of Timor-Leste is an award-winning documentary about four generations of fisherwomen striving to make a living in the coastal village of Adara, West Ataúro in Timor-Leste. Their daily lives, their economic practices and their vital concerns, as well as the contradicting discourses and social barriers they face, are shown in this ethnographic portrait that makes visible their critical contribution to the household economies and the fishing community at large. Their underwater dancing takes place in a context of rapid social change, where the generalisation of the formal education, the progressive consolidation of western moral values and the potential openness of more attractive livelihoods not linked to the sea, seem to be forging a social negotiation of the household economic strategies initiated by the oldest generation during the 50’s.

The film was directed and produced by David Palazón and Enrique Alonso, with the support of Mario Gomes (production assistant), Nelson Turquel (photographer), Nuno da Silva and Beatriz Marciel (scuba-divers) and Fredrik Stürmer (graphic design). The film is subtitled in English, French, Spanish (courtesy of Bea & Kike), Portuguese (courtesy of Fundação Oriente in Dili), Italian (courtesy of Giacomo & Julia) and German (courtesy of Jan-Patrick Fischer). 

In September 2013, the film was screened as part of National Women’s Day in Timor-Leste; during the event the protagonists received the Women of the Year Award by the hand of the Secretary of State for the Promotion of Equality. In March 2015, the film received the Special Prize ‘Chandrika Sharma’ at the 7ème Édition du Festival International de Films Pêcheurs du Monde in Lorient (France).

Wawata Topu means women divers in Rasua —one of the three dialects spoken in Atauro Island. It is said that the deep body of water of the Wetar strait is the place where wrong doers meet their fate and are swallowed up by the sea only to re-emerge as part-fish part-human (Barrkman, 2017). The myth of the mermaid is very much embedded into the local folklore of this remote island. As a matter of course, the film triggered the curiosity of many who adventured themselves to Atauro Island with the desire to meet the mysterious fisherwomen and —as a consequence— it inspired the production of a few more documentary productions featuring the famous women divers. Here is a selection:

The film is available on several online platforms including FilmDocumentaire and GuideDoc. It has been acquired by a few public libraries worldwide with interest in visual anthropology studies, including the library at the University of Melbourne, University of Cologne, National Library of Australia and the University Center of Westfjords in Iceland. In March 2017, the film was featured as part of the exhibition ‘The Sculptures of Atauro Island’ at Charles Darwin University Art Collection and Gallery.


For those interested to know further, the academic papers below provide a more in-depth analysis of this project:

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