We The Bathers is an intimate film that uncovers our inherent connection to water. This fly-on-the-wall documentary invites you to step inside bathrooms across the globe to observe how bathing rituals shape identity. Director Phoebe Arnstein speaks about the making of the film and the emotions water can unlock in us all.
As humans we’re dependent on water, but our gravitation towards it moves beyond survival. Water serves many purposes; it offers space to renew and relax, and is home to ceremonies and contemplation. In this documentary commissioned by Lush, Phoebe Arnstein uses water as a portal through which we’re privy to people’s interior narratives. Crossing cultures and continents, We The Bathers zooms in on stories in Japan, Italy, the U.K. and the U.S.
Drawn to the project through her own affinity with water as a way to interact with local culture, Phoebe was keen to dive into the project. She reflects: “My mind started racing around the globe, dreaming up different circumstances in which bathing could be poignant.”
Phoebe worked with cinematographer Amelia Hazlerigg and the rest of the team to create a camera system that allowed the crew to work quietly, helping individuals to open up about the role water plays in their lives. Shot with a skeleton crew in order to capture people in their most natural state, the team couldn’t have predicted just how delicate and stirring some of the stories would be.
Opening with a touching narrative about two elderly friends who use their local steam baths to cope with their mutual grief, it’s clear the role bathrooms play in the rumination of love and loss, struggle and freedom. Phoebe says:
“It wasn’t until shooting my second story at the steam baths in Canning Town that I realised the film could retain an emotional capacity that was far bigger than I had originally envisaged. It was startling to observe two elderly heterosexual men so at ease in their tenderness for one another.
“I talked to Ronnie right at the end of the day after we had finished shooting and learnt how the steam bath community was helping to fill an emotional and physical void after he helplessly watched his wife pass away. After meeting Ronnie, I realised that water had the power to unlock something potent.”
We The Bathers examines water as both a privilege and a luxury, acknowledging that, for many, access to clean running water isn’t always easy. A mother from Navajo speaks about the struggles of bathing her young daughter without running water (following contamination of water sources through uranium mining), while Laura, a woman from Skid Row, talks of the peace she finds in the ReFresh Spot, a hygiene centre for the homeless. Phoebe says:
“Bathing is a privilege and Tina, the young woman from Navajo Nation whose life is dominated by water scarcity, quietly reminds us of that. The film brushes gently against many other social issues such as racism, depression, homelessness, immigration and prostitution. For those challenged by their circumstances, bathing appeared to be an integral part of emotional management. Making this film opened my eyes to the depth of our connection with water and its role in our lives.”
From a new mother talking about how the Margate tidal pools helped her grapple with antenatal depression, to Jayson, who bathes in the hot springs outside of LA as an act of mindfulness - the film reveals water’s powerful ability to heal. Captured through curious yet compassionate eyes, some of the stories were more difficult to film however. Phoebe recounts:
“The afternoon I spent with Oki, the Nigerian migrant residing in an immigration centre in Sicily, was particularly difficult. After bearing audible witness to Oki’s traumatic past it suddenly made my questions regarding his connection to water seem futile and gratuitous. His voice was faint and trembling and mine felt intrusive and unwelcome.
“Our interview was unexpectedly stopped short by the start of evening service booming loudly from the church next door. As the sombre chanting flooded the room it felt, in some way, like it was helping to close the wounds I had opened. I realised then that I hadn’t made a mistake. Opening this man’s bathroom door had allowed me to step inside and listen to his story.”
We The Bathers will take you on a cinematic journey where you’ll traverse an emotive landscape, listening to the ways water can cleanse, comfort and connect.
The documentary premiers at Beak Street, Soho, on the 20th June, where you can enjoy a film screening and photography exhibition with refreshments. Alternatively, if you’re unable to attend, you can catch the film here once it’s premiered. What’s your bathtime story? Share the film and your story using #WeTheBathers.
Viewers are advised that We The Bathers joins people in their most private moments and therefore contains scenes of partial to full nudity