When the smugglers’ boat on which Alzakout tries to reach Europe sinks, the camera she attached to her wrist continued to record. The accidental footage was edited into this harrowing one-hour documentary. Mostly under water, with muffled sounds, these images have every right to become iconic.
Purple Sea went criminally underreported when it premiered at the Berlinale in February. Also by me: I was there, in Berlin, and didn’t see it – and didn’t meet anyone who told me to. Even now, there are very few reviews to be found online.
I say criminally, because this is an essential document. And also because it’s exactly about what we don’t want to see. What we are actively looking away from. The crime is, that Europe, as a society, as a political entity, openly ignores and abstracts the very real, very concrete deaths of refugees at its southern border, that have turned the Mediterranean into a mass grave.
Our crime, as film journalists, is to then ignore the documentary that registers that fact.
Director Amel Alzakout crossed the Mediterranean Sea on October 28, 2015. The boat she boarded was unsound and overloaded. Alzakout wanted to film her journey for her friend from Syria, Khaled Abdulwahed, who was already in Berlin. As a precaution, she had attached her small camera to her wrist. Halfway across, the boat sank. When she hit the water, the camera was still on. She didn’t realize, she had other things on her mind, as she told Visions du Réel. She expected to die. At least 42 of over 300 passengers did.
For hours, her waterproof camera keeps recording, which she and co-director Abdulwahed later edited into a one-hour film. Most of that time, the camera is under water. Usually the image is tilted, or turning. There is some sound, muffled. Screams and emergency whistles. The sound of Alzakout’s arm rubbing against her life jacket.
The mind wants a story. This is always true, and especially in cinema. I caught myself trying to figure things out. How many people’s legs could I see, under water? Were those a child’s? I read ‘Yamaha’. I read ‘perior’, on someone’s upper leg. Could be ‘superior’, I thought.
It didn’t help. There is no story here, no narrative. This is a one-hour moment. The camera moves randomly – there is no conscious framing, no sense of someone telling us where to look. This is as real as documentary gets. Even the cuts don’t register. There is water, there are bubbles, there’s some garbage. There are hands, and arms, and legs. We see clothes, but does it really matter that this person wears jeans, that person doesn’t wear shoes?
A couple of times, the camera is lifted above the water. It’s like gasping for air. One time, we can suddenly see many more people, all around, in little groups, before we go under again.
It took Alzakout and Abdulwahed a few years to come to grips with the material. At first, they wanted to use it in court. Someone had to be guilty. They contacted Forensic Architecture, a London-based research group that specializes in reconstructing events based on a wide range of data sources. Their Shipwreck at the Threshold of Europe, Lesvos, Aegean Sea: 28 October 2015, in which Alzakout’s recordings play a central role, also premiered at the Berlinale 2020 and is now available online for free.
Later, the filmmakers decided on a more personal approach. They wrote a voice-over, which is used, often sparingly, throughout the documentary. It recalls moments from Alzakout’s life, from a childhood memory of being pulled out of a pond, via her time in Syria and Istanbul, to her attempt to reach Europe, slowly catching up to the ‘now’ of the film, floating in the water.
Alzakout makes some poignant observations. Especially when, finally, a helicopter appears. ‘I see a red light inside the helicopter. Are they filming us? Where will the images end up? On YouTube? Or television? Regular news or breaking news? What do you call us? Refugees? Criminals? Victims? Or just numbers?’
It underlines what Purple Sea is: the view from the other side. Not a number, but a person. In a sense, this film is almost nothing. In another sense, it is everything. It’s the essence of an enormous geopolitical mess, boiled down, for me, to this single image: legs, dangling under water. Moving slowly, hypnotically, in a cold, ghastly blue. While the image itself also sways, back and forth, at the pace of the waves, reminding us of the person it is attached to. It is a moving image of death – no one here knows if they’ll make it, no one can do anything, except hold on, and wait for help that might never come, or come too late.
We are accustomed to still images becoming iconic. Photos of a war, a revolution. It’s less common for moving images, but that is what those legs under water are, to me: an iconic image of this immeasurable tragedy. An image that you need to see moving, an image that needs time. An image that needs at least an hour.
One commentator suggested that Purple Sea might work better as an installation. One could indeed imagine a room where it is projected on all four walls. Maybe the whole, unedited footage. Maybe without the voice-over which, although relevant and touching, also functions as a kind of life buoy for the viewer. Without it, the direct impact of the images could be even greater. And in a museum setting, the text can, of course, be made available on leaflets.
But then again, I’d also want to see this, as a film, in an IMAX theatre. And it also works the way I saw it: alone, at home, in the dark, on my laptop. Immersive cinema, a term used so frequently nowadays, and painfully accurate here. Knowing what it was I was seeing, I couldn’t help myself crying within two minutes. And that’s as it should be.
Directors: Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed