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"It's a beautiful day. The sun is bright. The sea is sharp blue. I fasten the camera to my wrist. I film this trip for you."

About ten minutes into Purple Sea I became mindful, that I had stopped breathing.

This film was recommended to me by Jesse Alk (Pariah Dog), who watched it on Visions du Réel's festival platform in April. It had premiered at Berlinale's Forum Expanded programme, on-screen, in February, and presented online at several European festivals following. This week Purple Sea is available to stream, within USA, for its North American premiere @ Camden International Film Festival.

I knew nothing about this film until I clicked "play."

In the first minutes the images are abstract. We are submerged, but where? The sounds are muffled. It almost seems in utero. Then there are legs paddling underwater, jeans and tracksuits, sneakers. The first-person narration, a female voice speaking Arabic, is spare, associative, oblique. A letter to a lover? Then the camera surfaces in a brief gasp, which is about when I realized that I hadn't, myself, been breathing.

We see no faces, just fragments, scored by squeaky PVC, gurgling water, and stifled despair. These people are in distress.

"In Damascus I study journalism. I want to become a war correspondent. What a stupid idea. Somehow, now, I've become one."

It's too easy to turn away from such a film, to come up for air. In the cinema, I couldn't do that. I'm "screening" it on my laptop, where most of us have watched some of this year's most outstanding films. Purple Sea is one of them, a documentary work of art.

"I hear a helicopter. What it is doing here? It whirls up the waves. 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? Fuck you all! Stop filming!"

Yes. Fuck me, fuck us.

The following information is all extraneous to the film, which consists entirely of footage captured by a waterproof camera Amel Alzakout had strapped to her wrist. Don't read on if you'd prefer to watch Purple Sea without any background or reviews. But in that case, you have to commit to watching it!

In 2015, Alzakout (Author/Director/Narrator), a Syrian artist, boarded a smuggler's boat on the coast of Turkey. Her ultimate destination was Berlin, to reunite with her partner, Khaled Abdulwahedwhom (Co-Author/Co-Director), whom she had met in exile in Turkey. The boat capsized and sank en route to the Greek island of Lesbos. 316 people were on board. 42 people died.

Kees Driessen has written passionately about Purple Sea for Business Doc Europe, a market-orientated publication which manages to give space and contemplation to art docs.

"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."

Driessen also watched Purple Sea on a laptop. On desistfilm, Ivonne Sheen writes (translated from Spanish here):

"Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed create a sort of dreamy sensation of floating that portraits a staggering lost of skyline, by taking advantage of the raw footage that involve a limited vision of the experience and transmites the sensation of holding on to what the voice over in the presente deeply remembers about the experience and dreams."

"Although the sea here is closer to purple, Purple Sea recalls the monochromatic intimacy of Derek Jarman’s Blue, another film about dying slowly but living desperately, and to the point of blindness—literal or otherwise—until the moment death finally arrives. The pieces eventually come together through deduction, not demonstration, in this experimental documentary, which respects the unhurried speed of metaphors."

There are also reviews online in German and Spanish. I'll be looking out for more such fine film criticism and comment applied to Purple Sea, of all perspectives. These are the kinds of experiences you miss discussing, working out, face-to-face, at film festivals.

Other great sources of information and background about this film can be found on the official Purple Sea website. There is an interview with Alzakout on a production funder's website. Lightbox is managing sales. German Documentaries is supporting international promotion.

(Note to self...don't call it Purple Rain, don't call it Purple Rain, don't call it Purple Rain...)

You'd fly to Prague and a young Czech dude would pick you up at the airport and drive south, averaging 180 km/hr, to Jihlava. It was late October. You'd spend five days binging on documentary cinema, coffee and cigarettes, pilsners chased with Slivovitz, and then board a bus to Leipzig with some thirty wiped out docster colleagues. Rinse and repeat, except red wine, German beer and schnitzel replacing the hearty stews and shots. Then a plane and a train to Sheffield, rinse and repeat with English breakfast and best bitters. Then Copenhagen, herring and hyggelig, and next stop Amsterdam for way too much weed and trays of scalding Kassttruffel, scoffed whilst crushed and close-talking at cocktail hour. After six weeks you'd crawl home to Canada, world-weary, liver spotted, and altered.

I've considered that my current Doc.tober impulse originates in muscle memory. Not long ago, it was possible to attend five of the world's best documentary film festivals, back to back. One could even squeeze in stop-overs to festivals in Bratislava, or Lisboa, or Florence. There was a time when I'd spend six straight weeks watching and talking documentary, face to face. That was a different bubble than the one we're in now. While less fortified by docs and travel, the upside is that I'm much healthier these days, knock wood.

Yesterday, Doc.tober brought me back to Europe, digitally. Dok.toberfest, if you'd like. With its office based in Prague, DA Films is a streaming platform that specializes in creative nonfiction films. It's the product of a unique collaboration, Doc Alliance, among several European festivals, including CPH:DOX, Doclisboa, Docs Against Gravity, DOK Leipzig, FIDMarseille, Ji.hlava IDFF and Visions du Réel. Festivals playing nice with each other, thanks to EU support.

Founded in 2008, DA Films was early to VOD and offers a deep library to get lost in. I've done, and am doing, some business with them, so spending quality time on the platform fosters an illusion of productivity on a drizzly Sunday afternoon. The rev share is a friendly 60/40 in favour of rights holders, who can customize geographical access, worldwide. A monthly subscription is five Euros and there are also one-off transactional options to rent or buy films of interest. DA Films offers curated thematic programmes (Tracing Reality and Fiction), filmmaker spotlights (Chantal Akerman, From the Other Side), festival retrospectives (Sheffield Doc/Fest: Reimagining the Land) and troves of obscure documentary cinema, rare Eastern European and Balkan films, Taiwanese avant-garde from the Sixties, and on and on. As always, choosing a selection takes me longer than viewing it.

I land on the lovely opportunity to watch the entire oeuvre of Elizabeth Lo, whose first feature film, Stray, was bound for a 2020 festival dream ride, with Spring premieres at Tribeca, San Franciso IFF, and Hot Docs, where a jury awarded it the International Competition prize, though Stray was in absentia from that festival's virtual programme. Lo, I discover on DA Films, directed seven shorts between 2013 and 2017, when presumably she dug in on Stray. What an unexpected treat, to see a significant talent honing her craft over several years, all on a cozy Sunday afternoon.

Last Stop In Santa Rosa is a black-and-white tone poem set in a hospice for dying animals. Children quietly narrate their experiences as residents of Treasure Island, a former naval base, now a housing project with radioactive waste beneath the homes. Hotel 22 deftly observes displaced riders on a late-night public bus route in Silicon Valley, including capturing a violently racist outburst. Also set in Silicon Valley, Notes From Buena Vista is loving, lyrical portraiture featuring children and their parents living in a low-income mobile home park. The stylistic outlier in Lo's filmography, The Disclosure President, commissioned by Field of Vision, is an unremarkable profile of UFO lobbyist Stephen Bassett. The two most recent shorts, Bisonhead and Mother's Day (a heartbreaker), are both accomplished works interweaving Lo's sharp, subtle observational style and social justice point-of-view. She's a filmmaker that was clearly ready for the demands of long form artistic and narrative expression, and no overnight success.

Stray, following three street dogs in Istanbul, was picked up by Magnolia Pictures for the U.S. market. It's drawn the requisite and likely lazy, reductive, Kedi comparisons (which Magnolia wouldn't mind, of course). There has been a litter of dogumentaries (sorry) on the festival circuit the past two years. As a Consulting Producer on Pariah Dog, Jesse Alk's excellent debut feature (currently at 100% on Rotten Tomatoes, with one Kedi comparison), and a consultant on Rosvita Dransfeld's smart and entertaining Dogsville (to be released), I've been following the friendly competition. From the filmmaker's perspective, it's tough to spend years conceiving and making a film on a subject to find, when its finally finished, that festivals are considering, or have presented, several other productions that are either loosely, or unfairly, lumped together.

Pariah Dog, it's my pleasure and duty to inform you, is available on Apple TV and Prime Video in North America, United Kingdom and Australia.


"He's a psychiatrist. I'm a cameraperson. I suggested I make a movie about him dying. He said yes."

Dick Johnson Is Dead is a bravely baroque meta-memoir, magic and realism, a nonfiction film so light and buoyant within the fluidity of the form that it floats. It's also a living memorial, both joyful and teary, to all of our parents, as well as to our caregivers past, present, and future. In this time of vulnerability, peril, and loss, Dick Johnson Is Dead is also a work of art that is at once reparative and devastating. I watched it last night with Danielle, who reached for the tissue box one-minute in. We laughed throughout the film, and were a little bit destroyed as the credits rolled.

Kirsten Johnson has made a masterwork here, one deserving of thought and study. I miss having the time and attention to apply appropriate reflection in writing about film, or anything. And I'm not even going to attempt it the morning after, which would be a disservice. I also don't feel much like crying this morning. When I was a festival programmer, watching docs all day, frequent weeping was all part of a good day's work. I don't miss that.

I assume Netflix will be making an awards push for Dick Johnson Is Dead. I think they should position it for Best Picture, not just Best Documentary. While experimental to a degree, it is not alienating in its formal conceits and would expose wider audiences to more ambitious approaches to documentary filmmaking. Also, this film is so particularly resonant in these times, and beautiful, and cathartic, it could and should burst the documentary bubble. And it does.

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