The Water Rats – documentary (2022)
Director: Jillian Edelstein ‘
Cinematographer: Jillian Edelstein
Producers: Jillian Edelstein, Greig Coetzee
Editor: Greig Coetzee
Running time: 48 minutes

South African premiere screenings- August 11, 2023 at 6pm

Hilton Arts Festival, KZN:  
Labia Theatre (Cinema), Cape Town:


Jillian Edelstein and Greig Coetzee are South Africans living in London. Their documentary, The Water Rats [2022], will have its South African première on Friday- August 11, 2023 at the Labia Cinema in Cape Town and at the Hilton Arts Festival in KZN, at 6pm (both screenings). The Water Rats is framed around a group of swimmers who swam in public ponds in London in the Hampstead Heath ponds, during lockdown when swimming was banned. In an interview in the film, Edelstein reflects how when the pandemic hit, she became interested in “creative collaboration in a time of separation when everything was frozen”.  The Water Rats is an exquisitely rendered film -aesthetically beautiful, visually seductive and layered with compelling narratives. It is a film about the personal; the dynamics of community and togetherness in a time of separation and finding an immersive bonding which transcends details of occupation, political, religious, cultural and other affiliations. It is a film which is fiercely and passionately grounded in the beauty of the landscape and the transformative power of swimming to allow for submersion and release- with foxes and swans as voyeurs. Dunking in the water (freezing water in London outdoor swimming – yes) and everything becomes submerged – beyond who or what you are. The film includes exquisite still images by Edelstein, mobile phone footage by the swimmers and interviews. It is a film of intense intimacy – an intimacy of interpersonal connection.

The genesis of the film, goes back to when the pandemic hit and Jillian Edelstein’s projects were put on hold. The internationally acclaimed photographer, joined a group of people who were swimming in the pools in the Hampstead ponds. Before the pandemic, most had been regular users of the ponds – with season tickets to use the ponds and the facilities (includes changing room and life guards). Due to lockdown regulations, the public pools were closed.  The regular swimmers subverted the rules and went swimming in the early morning, under the cover of darkness, before the arrival of the constabulary (such a UK word). They climbed over the fence, hid in the bushes, did what could to go swimming. Meanwhile on the telly, Boris Johnson was ranting about the need to stick to the rules. The swimming dissidents were drawn to each other and a group emerged. Jillian Edelstein became part of this group. In about May 2020, the swimmers “consecrated” the group as ‘The Water Rats’. They did this via WhatsApp. There were lots of emojis.

At some point, Edelstein took her camera and being to document what was around her – bodies – skin- landscape.  It became like a “lockdown photography project”, says Greig Coetzee how came on board as producer and editor for what was to become The Water Rats. “They [the swimmers] became, willing subjects for her to take photos”. Most of the group went into the water, unclothed. They shed their clothes, inhibitions, attachments

Coetzee was not one of the swimmers. He was in a writer’s group, headed up by Esther Freud, the author. Edelstein was in the same group and Freud said: “You are two South Africans- you should chat.” Greig – the acclaimed playwright, screenwriter, theatre maker– was teaching himself film editing. He was doing an online course.  Edelstein suggested that he write a drama, around the group of pond swimmers. Greig countered – “How about we do a documentary?”

They filmed interviews in Edelstein’s sitting room and the film took shape from there. Greig used her stills. There were iPhone videos that the members of the group had taken and these were incorporated into the film. Greig “The film was cobbled together like that – on zero budget. I thought it would be an interesting lockdown story and also about civil disobedience… “But, he realised that the journey was Edelstein’s and this provides the armature of this moving film. Edelstein’s story is threaded into the film and traces how she began to document the group and the personal loss she went through during that time (her elderly mom died and Edelstein was trapped in an ‘lockdown hotel’ in Australia unable to be with her in her last days).

The Water Rats is about a group of swimmers in an urban pond in London but it also conjures up a vivid portrait of the private – the creative and personal journey of Edelstein during lockdown. She is usually behind the camera and in The Water Rats- she is in the spotlight- sharing her story and the story of the warm embrace of the community of the swimmers.

I was intrigued watching The Water Rats- the bathers in freezing cold water (yikes!) in urban north London. The stories are wonderful and tenderly conveyed, without creating an “issue” film.  Here is a narrative plot spoiler. I loved the interview when one of the swimmers, Jac Palmer, muses that that if questioned by the constabulary, one of the excuses that they had on hand was that they “were having a Mikveh: a Jewish tradition for women to purify their vaginas for their husbands.” Palmer quips: “We thought – well clearly- they might be put off by that and not know the ins and outs of the Mikveh.” Love it. Yes, this comment pings off the dogma of the apparent uncleanliness of women if they have not had a ritual dunking. However, for me this image conjures up the act of submersion which transcends religion and belief system. I think that is lovely. In the water, in a pool or in an ocean (I prefer the ocean and it should be on the warm side, thank you), means letting go and becoming submerged in a safe haven, a womb. I think that here is something beautiful in that sense of letting go.

Talking of religion, in the interviews in Water Rats, the bathers talk about swimming in the ponds, with religious or may we say, spiritual, fervour. They talk about the physical and psychological benefits of swimming – the release of dopamine etc. There is a sense of the experience as sacred- the sheer magic and wonder of it all – in urban London.

✳ Featured image – still from The Water Rats- by Jillian Edelstein – supplied.