"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."
And for Slate, Diego Semerene...
"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...)