In 2015, artist Amel Alkazout was forced to leave her home in Syria when the war there became too dangerous to bear, and in the process of leaving for Germany, where her partner was staying with their cat, she was trapped in another difficult position, that of a refugee. Many thousands were fleeing warzones as she was, and there were plenty willing to exploit them, which is how she became involved with the people smugglers taking migrants across the Mediterranean. But those smugglers were greedy, and packed their boats with as many bodies as was possible...
So what happens? You can probably guess the rest: the boat Amel was on capsized when it was overloaded, plunging herself and over three hundred others into the sea where they were at the mercy of the elements. That it was a pleasant, sunny October day was the sole blessing, as otherwise the refugees were still bobbing around, in lifejackets if they were lucky, screaming for help, and that nightmarish scenario was one that she captured on the camera attached to her wrist. Now, there's no question of attempting to make the best shots in those conditions.
Therefore this documentary edited together a few hours of Amel's ordeal during which she was almost convinced she was going to die, and indeed we are told that forty-two people did die that day, though she was not among them. Cut to the chase, in reality she was rescued and made it to her partner (and the cat) in Berlin where they realised they had this invaluable footage of a refugee crisis from someone who not only had been there on the ground (or indeed in the water), but they could make it into a film if they added Amel's impressions of what had happened to her in voiceover.
The results are not an easy watch by any means, if anything strangely reminiscent of another sea-based documentary shot entirely in a melange of closeups, the fishing story Leviathan from 2012, also crafted through clips from Gopro cameras. Except there it was disturbing to be a fish being caught in such huge numbers to be slaughtered, and here it was actual humanity we were watching ending up as victims. Don't get the wrong idea, this was not a Faces of Death style mondo movie that asked us to gloat over the demises of the victims we see, nor were we meant to get a kick out of the tragedy as it played out here.
Yet no matter the noble intentions, it was difficult to entirely ignore the fact that some of the audience for this despised the refugees and may be enjoying the sight of their suffering. That assuredly was not Alkazout's motive for making it, but you did fear for the state of the victims when their screams would be music to the ears of many a sicko. However, the essential avant-garde nature of the piece, being as it was a succession of underwater shots of kicking legs and the occasional over the surface glimpse of the survivors, probably meant the unhealthy thrill seeker was not going to get much out of it, and the narration detailing in poetic tones how Amel got to this point had no tinge of exploitation about it either. The worst you could accuse it of was misery porn, but this was undeniably what she had endured and there was no downplaying the horror of the imagery, nor its awful monotony as death all-too-patiently awaited some in that picturesque surrounding.
[Click here to watch on MUBI.]