Purple Sea review – harrowing study of Syrian refugee in lifejacket limbo

Powerful but painful to watch, this experimental documentary challenges viewers to avert their eyes from the tragedy unfolding before them. It consists almost entirely of footage recorded on a waterproof camera that was strapped to the wrist of Syrian co-director Amel Alzakout while she was floating in the sea off the coast of Lesbos, after the boat she’d been travelling in sunk. Like the other 300 people on the vessel that day in 2015, Alzakout had paid people smugglers to help her escape the war in Syria and find a better life abroad. While she lived to make this film and was reunited with her partner and co-director Khaled Abdulwahed, alcuni 40 people died in the water that day.

It’s possible that some of the perished are even captured on film here – though to be honest, it’s hard to make out much for long stretches as the images thrash around, evoking the panic Alzakout and her fellow passengers, many in lifejackets, must have been experiencing as they tried to stay afloat. Sometimes the camera is above the waterline and we can hear people crying, calling hysterically, blowing whistles to call for help. Otherwise, the view is of jeans-clad legs and other jumbled bodies twisting in the water, the sound muffled by the sea.

The mix of underwater and above-the-surface images inevitably suggests souls hovering between life and death. Underscoring the feeling of limbo, we hear Alzakout’s voice throughout, dubbed in postproduction, as she describes memories of home before the war, the arduous journey there, and experiences yet to come. Her narration is emotionally muted, even optimistic in a way, forming a contrast to the horror of the visuals. There’s even a little space to laugh when she mentions that she managed to get her cat on a plane to Berlin to Abdulwahed before she left, as no visa for kitty is required.

Admirable though this deeply personal work is, it’s not an easy film to sit through. This is where documentary film-making really shades into gallery-bound visual art, creating a piece that, for all the tragedy it records, hits you more in the head than the gut.

Purple Sea is available on 25 August on Mubi.

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