Numerous documentary makers have tried to put faces on the nameless refugees who failed to make it to their ‘promised land’. In her first feature-length documentary, world-premiering in IDFA Mid-length Competition, French director Madeleine Leroyer takes the soulless remains of a refugee as a starting point, in an attempt to identify #387.
April 18th 2015 marked yet another horrendous low point in the ongoing tragedy of hopeful migrants trying to find their way to a better future. On that day, a ship with at least 800 people on board, sank off the Lybian coast.
Almost a year later, the Italian navy raised the wreckage from the seabed, after the government had promised the victims a decent burial. In order to do that, the dead had to be named, and thus began the grisly task of collecting, archiving and identifying the remains of the bodies and of objects: cell phones, wallets, letters, identity papers, bank notes, photographs, clothes, jewellery.
Leroyer follows some of the forensic scientists in their search for the names, in the largest identification operation undertaken in the Mediterranean. The opening scenes are breathtaking: the camera circles around the remains of the ship underwater – a poetic picture of cruel beauty. As the wreckage reaches the surface, reality hits: this is a rusty, metal graveyard for hundreds of people.
The film continues at a peaceful, almost meditative pace, when we see the scientist ever so carefully and almost lovingly spread out the belongings of deceased #387: a wallet, which contains a letter, a few photographs and some money. Leroyer beautifully captures the dedication and integrity with which the examiners execute their duties – the love letter is folded out with the aid of tweezers, the pieces softly laid on a bed of paper.
This tranquil and meditative opening to the documentary is reminiscent of other films on the subject, such as Morgan Kribbe’s visually spectacular Those Who Feel the Fire Burning or Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea which focused on the inhabitants of ‘refugee island’ Lampedusa rather than the migrants.
But what sets these latter films apart is their original, consistent and uncompromising point of view. It is a pity Leroyer didn’t make the bold choices that the title and opening scenes promise, and fully concentrate on the remains of #387. Instead, she chose to incorporate more characters, such as a researcher who travels to graveyards where drowned migrants have been buried in obsolete graves – nameless and faceless. She searches the archives to connect actual people to the numbers, a slow and painstaking process, with limited success.
Meanwhile, we also follow a Red Cross worker on the African continent who visits small villages in attempt to find family members of the deceased. Sometimes he’s fortunate enough to encounter people who were there when their friends or family set out on their fatal journey.
And Leroyer also interviews some of the survivors, who give heartbreaking accounts of the events: a young man keeps repeating how people were clinging on to him for dear life, and how he had to shake them off just to save his own. The memory pains him visibly: you can almost see the haunting pictures in his eyes as the tears are rolling down his cheeks.
These decisions are understandable. Each of the characters has his or her own incredible story to tell about their own interesting and captivating journey. The woman examining the graveyards has a grandfather who was allegedly killed by the Mafia and whose body was never found. Her grandmother has always kept his toothbrush in the bathroom as a hopeful reminder.
But as we follow the multiple stories, it is difficult to fully connect with any of them. Switching to different countries, different characters, different atmospheres and different stories makes it almost impossible to stay focused and tuned in. They feel like loose scenes dropped in from different films.
This is not to detract from the urgency and necessity of #387. The number of victims is shocking, and unprecedented in these waters. And the struggle of the migrants is unrelenting – since 2000 more than 22,000 people have died in their search for another life. Their stories need to be told over and over again, but it becomes increasingly difficult to make an impact.
Madeleine Leroyer’s project was picked as one of the ten winners of the 2018 Chicken & Egg Accelerator Lab for emerging filmmakers. Her attempt at giving one of the victims an identity is interesting and brave. But it would have benefitted from an even more daring approach. The result is that the story of victim #387 gets lost, like most of the stories of the people buried in the Mediterranean Sea.