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Empatheatre Short Film ‘Indlela Yokuphila: The Soul’s Journey’ At The United Nations World Ocean Week

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Ancestors were present in this year’s UN World Oceans Week in the form of a digital storytelling and research project.

Ancestors were present in this year’s UN World Oceans Week in the form of a digital storytelling and research project. The five-minute film, which took five years to create, explores an aspect of intangible ocean heritage and involved the participation of Indigenous knowledge holders from South Africa. The film and underlying research were headed by Empatheatre, who presented their latest collaboratively made short film, ‘Indlela Yokuphila: The Soul’s Journey,” at the United Nations World Ocean Week in New York in June 2023.

“The film took so long to create, as it was dealing with sacred and sensitive information and cultural representations, or re-configurations of how many South Africans engage with the ocean. So much of how we make decisions about the sea are governed by science, but this film tried to create a bridge between indigenous meaning-making practices and western science. The film worked in an iterative manner consulting Indigenous knowledge holders, scientists, Zulu historians, sociologists and communities around how the story would be told and shown.” says Dr. Dylan McGarry one of the directors and lead researchers on the project.

The film draws upon Empatheatre’s unique co-developed methodology and utilises animation to bring forth Zulu traditional ancestral beliefs and cultural valuations of the ocean. “The largest oversight and gap in ocean governance is how to include spiritual and cultural heritages in decision-making and marine spatial planning,” adds Dr. Dylan McGarry, co-founder of Empatheatre and educational sociologist at the Environmental Learning Research Centre.

The film bridges the gap between indigenous and scientific knowledge, enhancing our collective understanding of the water cycle. Visually arresting, the film encapsulates the essence of the sacred knowledge it derives from, thanks to Empatheatre’s collaboration animation Studios Shells & Spells, and Triggerfish. Working closely with Indigenous knowledge holders this exceptional team of creatives in South Africa have undergone numerous iterations to ensure a respectful and accurate representation that moves the soul. The film also includes ecological knowledge and imagery, drawing from South African biodiversity science to reflect the changing ecosystems during the soul’s journey.

The film was hosted by Blue Planet Alliance and Peace Boat and its audience was made of UN delegates, UNDALOS Nippon fellows, and we also had the newly elected Indigenous Prime Minister of Cameroon in the audience The audience also included applied theatre professionals, human geographers, sociologists and other researchers from different universities in the USA, as well as students and some Indigenous representatives from the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand.


‘Indlela Yokuphila: The Soul’s Journey’ has been instrumental in three court proceedings in South Africa. It was used as evidence against oil and gas giant Shell and the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy that was brought forward successfully by Indigenous fisher leaders and ocean defenders. These judicial decisions mark the first time that an animation has been used as evidence in a South African court, serving as a proxy for the intangible cultural heritage related to the ocean. The film, along with two other Empatheatre films and a radio play, sheds light on and allows to connect with the intangible ocean heritages in the realms of governance and education.

“This animation, along with other animated films Empatheatre have created, have been used as evidence in court cases and policy making practices, as well as ocean literacy. In that way, it challenges what counts as evidence in ocean governance and policy development in South Africa, which previously has failed many South Africans in participating in equitable and collective decision-making for and with the ocean. Now we are excited to share that a collective of ocean defenders and other activists, were able to use our animated films and radio play as evidence in three consecutive court proceedings against Oil and Gas giant Shell who was trying to mine the South African deep sea for Oil and Gas. This arts-based evidence supported the rich and powerful affidavits and testimonies of small scale fisher ocean defenders who bravely led the court case against big industry and government”, Dylan McGarry says.

The animation has now also been connected with ongoing international debates on the environmental, as well as cultural and spiritual concerns, about deep-seabed mining and their human rights implications (see here and here), as also recently underscored by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.


In South Africa, many cultures revere the ocean as the realm in which the ancestors’ dwell. The film emerged from a question Mthombeni has carried with her since childhood: I always asked Sangomas (traditional healers) and elders, do we really have ancestors living in the sea and how did they get there? This film has been a journey in finding answers to this question.

The film beautifully demonstrates how scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge can align when approached with careful listening. It presents the soul’s journey after death, from transforming into a young ancestor and travelling through underground streams and river systems, all the way to the deep sea where ancient wisdoms reside.

Indlela Yokuphila receives its name from a Zulu phrase meaning “the Soul’s journey”. Researched and narrated by Mpume Mthombeni (Empatheatre) and directed by Marc Moynihan (Shells & Spells) and Dr. Dylan McGarry (Empatheatre/Rhodes University), the film aims to make intangible ocean heritages more tangible in the governance space, and in education, through the medium of animation and public dialogue.

As Empatheatre co-director Mpume Mthombeni states: “Storytelling is the sacred medicine ocean governance needs”.

The film has been created by Empatheatre in collaboration with Shells and Spells, and funded by the One Ocean Hub, The Environmental Learning Research Centre (Rhodes University), Urban Futures Centre (Durban University of Technology) and Triggerfish.

Film can be watched here.

Artwork: Marc Moyinhan and Dylan McGarry