Review: Purple Sea

Directors: Amel Alzakout, Khaled Abdulwahed

Stars: Amel Alzakout

While fleeing Syria by sea in 2015, the boat carrying Amel Alzakout capsized, plunging her and many other refugees into the water. Attached to her wrist, Alzakout’s GoPro captured the event in full, and from a vantage point that we couldn’t possibly have been afforded otherwise. Purple Sea consists of that remarkable and often dizzying footage, interspersed with narration from Alzakout. The finished artifact – a stunning accidentally-experimental documentary – is an essential and never-more-timely window into the daily horrors of the global refugee crisis.

An unintended film, it’s images are strikingly abstract – even absurd – when taken out of context. The brilliance of a clear blue sky. Extreme close-ups of Alzakout’s own wrist and fingers. The regular flashes of fluorescent orange from the lifejackets of those that surround her. Many legs, clothed unsuitably in jeans, floating together, giving the impression of some strange, giant, Levi-clad sea anemone. A many-limbed beast out of Hollister. What’s up and what’s down is often indistinguishable.

Sonically the film is an astonishing mix of contrasts, too. Most of the time, Alzakout’s wrist is submerged and so the film is strangely serene and subdued, as though clouded by its own sense of shock and amazement. The ocean itself a kind of protective cocoon or shield. An almost comic calm. But then, on the occasions that we burst to surface, we’re blasted into a world of panic, of screams, of thrashing bodies. A slap of the real. Every time this happens, its shocking. Then, just as quickly, we’re submerged once more, back into a quiet now rendered eerie thanks to our knowledge of what’s happening above.

In her narration, Alzakout juxtaposes. In a calm tone she talks of the horrors in those moments (people tied to the sinking vessel desperately trying to get free). But equally, she reminisces on trivial moments from her life (watching Syrian soap operas on YouTube). The astonishing and the everyday are conflated, equalised. The emotional detachment in Alzakout’s voice when she returns to the moment – to the drama in the sea – underscores this. This is something that happens, it says. This is the everyday.

Equating the mundane with the remarkable, Alzakout strongly evokes a way of life that is permanently caught in high tension. That even still moments are pressed by the potential for instant change. Conversely, it also rings as remarkably true that, in a genuine disaster, one would disassociate, would go back to those safer moments, would use memory to transport, evade, escape. The sense of banal tragedy in her words recalls Chantal Akerman’s nakedly personal News from Home… if it were collided with the similarly essential (and nautical) documentary Leviathan from 2012. The mix is astonishing and absolutely singular. We can attach reference points, but here are no other films quite like this one.

Unintentionally, it recalls American genre cinema’s occasional attempts to collide the found footage film with schlocky shark attack thrills. Nothing so far-fetched threatens the refugees caught by Alzakout; the capsizing is legitimately horrific enough. But here, reality trumps fiction. Though it might be labelled repetitive, Purple Sea counters that genuine ‘found footage’ is inherently more gripping because of its truth. When we catch a glimpse of a child’s shoe kicking in the water, the implications strike hard.

There’s a purity to this shot of reality that is blinding. Any number of documentaries may try (and fail) to grasp the complexities of the refugee crisis using talking heads and news reel B-roll. From her part-submerged perspective, Alzakout cuts through the statistics and op-heads to present a distilled human moment from within the world of the ‘story’. Only the narration editorialises; pointing us toward a mood or feeling in which to parcel these images. For those struggling to empathise, the surreal trauma of Purple Sea might be just what’s required to bring this chaotic subject into sharp focus.

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