NH20: Drowning by the Images

Mateusz Tarwacki
4 min readNov 8, 2020

Big stories — like the unending refugee crisis — are as attractive as they are dangerous to those who dare to talk about them. After all, there is nothing easier than falling into the trap of Eurocentrism (or more broadly, the perspective of the first world inhabitant), telling about living, tangible tragedies in the language of a large budget, international production and modern technology. Although a large budget has a direct proportion of great cinematic power, there is something hypocritical about these stagings of reality.

It’s like the dilemma of a monument — first, is there a point in putting up a monument to someone who is still alive (as if you wanted to cover his or her life with a marble simulacra), and secondly, isn’t it better to invest in something that would actually be socially useful[1]? By telling about the experience of refugees not only without their personal participation, but also following the rules of the classical narrative, one pushes this experience into the past — it will fall into oblivion along with the afterimages of the film (does anyone still remember Jacques Audiard’s Immigrants from 2015?). Yet this experience is something alive and present.

When writing about these kind of stories, I often refer to the text by Paweł Mościcki, On the Borders of Visibility, in which the Polish researcher called for the development of a narrative key showing the perspective of refugees by using tools characteristic of their experience, in opposition to “neat, tidy” cinema[2]. A great illustration of this postulate was the film by Philip Scheffner, Havarie, from 2016, in which the creator uses 3.5-minute amateur recording by Terry Diamond ( video available on YouTube) showing refugees on a primitive raft in the middle of the sea and extends it to over an hour long screening. Although Scheffner’s work is terribly difficult to perceive, it shows refugees as they are, ghosts of the borderland who are both visible and invisible — the raft is blurry, the quality of the film is awful, the people look like dark spots in the blueness of the sea[3].

New Horizons — press materials

Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed took their Purple Sea a step further — evidently using the experience of Scheffner who edited their film — leading viewers across the “border of visibility”. The film was shot by Alzakout herself, when she fled Syria with other refugees in 2015, and the boat they were sailing sank near the coast of Greece. With a camera attached to her wrist, the Syrian tries to stay afloat for several hours. We see the crush of the bodies, violent gestures and a desperate attempt to stay afloat. We hear screams, the sound of water and its gurgling just below the surface.

The uniqueness of Purple Sea lies in the fact that it is in an absolute opposition to the production system and the domination of large-scale capital. It is a story told through the eyes (or rather the hand) of a refugee. Moreover, the nuisance of epileptic projection — yes, it cannot be denied that the work of Alzakout and Abdulwahed is not comfortable to watch — allows viewers to feel the present very strongly. The discomfort of looking at sinking images, the awareness of one’s own body that suddenly makes one feel uncomfortable in every position, and attention that is almost impossible to maintain, especially while watching the movie on a home screen. If the viewers do not at least learn from the screening of the traumatic experience of many, they may remember the grim realization of how different this ruthless world looks like, having its beginning right on the threshold of a tourist paradise and Greek blue shores.

Purple Sea is not a monument. It is also difficult — even with the poetic narrative of the movie — to call the work of Syrian artists a film in a structural sense. In order to describe this video record, it must be compared to a time capsule in which a moment is closed, because the image takes us straight to a live experience recorded in time. An experience that probably someone in the world is having right now.

[1] I believe in the usefulness and power of images, but human life is more important than any image.

[2] Paweł Mościcki, On the Borders of Visibility, Political Critique, nr 24–25, 2010 -05 p. 49–58.

[3] Another clever strategy is presented by Austrian documentary filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter in his 2018 The Border Fence. The artist shows the Tyrolean borderland, the multitude of views of local residents on the subject of refugees and the surprising lack of these refugees. By not showing the migrants, Geyrhalter makes them appear like ghosts in the film — and tells about them with great tenderness.

Originally published at https://zawieszony.pl on November 8, 2020.



Mateusz Tarwacki

Born 1993. Film critic, holds MA from University of Warsaw. He’s interested in neomodernist, socially engaged and female cinema. Writes a blog: zawieszony.pl/en