Streaming Review

Purple Sea review – soul-chilling chronicle of a refugee tragedy

This essential film from Syrian director Amel Alzakout charts the sinking of a migrant boat using footage from a waterproof camera

The year 2015 was defined by crisis, as the ongoing Syrian Civil War and renewed conflict in Iraq forced over a million people to seek asylum in Europe. Thousands drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. The years since have seen a rightward political shift in Europe fuelled by a marked increase in xenophobic rhetoric in public life. April 2015 saw the billionaire-owned Sun newspaper publish a column comparing those seeking asylum to cockroaches and encouraging the use of gunships to stop them from crossing the Mediterranean.

A few months later, Syrian artist Amel Alzakout was just one of those attempting to reach Europe when her boat sank between the Turkish coast and the Greek island of Lesbos. Although Alzakout survived the ordeal, 42 people did not. While she and more than 300 others were at sea, a camera attached to her wrist recorded the events. Purple Sea consists entirely of that footage.

There’s a brutal simplicity to the film's structure. Bookended by black screens, it never cuts away from the disaster in its 66 minute runtime, planting you in a moment-to-moment struggle for survival. Even such a relatively short runtime feels unbearable to watch. In reality, Alkazout and her fellow passengers were in the water for hours.

Purple Sea is a film of stark contrasts. Alzakout – who is credited as co-director – narrates the film years after the sinking. The disconnect between her voice – calm, reflective, and rehearsed – clashes against the spontaneity of mortal terror captured in 2015. Within the footage itself there are almost two porous realms. For most of the runtime the camera remains underwater. Here, the images become abstracted into blocks of blue and orange. At times, as legs dangle over a teal abyss, these moments achieve a disconcerting serenity. When the camera is above water, the crash of air shocks and quickly transitions into the once-muffled screams of people. You can hear the children. Faces can be glimpsed, but frantic movement leaves no time to memorise them.

Purple Sea is a soul-chilling film, and one of the most vital documents of the 2010s. Watching it after Brexit and the Trump presidency inevitably prompts depressing questions about just what it will take for the West to gain a conscience. Towards the end, as a helicopter arrives on the scene, Alzakout recalls seeing a red light coming from it and supposes that the people inside were filming those in the water. She questions what the person shooting saw: “Refugees? Criminals? Victims? Or just numbers? Fuck you all!” She wasn’t just talking to those in that helicopter.

Purple Sea is showing on MUBI from 25 August.

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