Purple Sea


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Purple Sea
"This may not be filmmaking in a traditional sense but Azakout's thoughtful voice-over gives the film a shape to go with its immediacy, the effect of the two together profoundly moving." | Photo: Courtesy of Berlinale

Other documentarians have tackled the subject of the refugee crisis that has already seen at least 250 migrants lose their lives trying to cross the Mediterranean since the start of 2021 - but few have had the horrifying immediacy of Purple Sea, which shows the lived experience of co-director Amel Alzakout as she attempted the crossing in order to be with her partner (and the film's co-director) Khaled Abdulwahed.

"It's a beautiful day," she tells us in the essayistic voice-over that accompanies the footage and we can see that from the pure blue sky caught by the camera she had attached to her wrist for the crossing from Turkey. We can also immediately see that something is very wrong with this picture. We're at about the water level and, at close proximity, we can see people bobbing, some in life vests. The camera often dips below the waves, muting what's going on above, but when it does break the surface, we can hear the unmistakable sounds of panic and a whistle being blown in a bid to attract help.

The camera documents what happened when, on that beautiful day in October 2015, the boat Alzakout was on sank in the early afternoon leaving the occupants struggling to survive until 274 of the 316 thought to be aboard were rescued at about 5.30pm. As Alzakout floats in the sea, her camera keeps on rolling, sometimes showing legs kicking beneath the waves or detritus from the boat, at other times bobbing at the surface, almost sounding as though it is gasping for breath itself, and when above the water, recording the confusion and fear.

As the footage rolls on, Alzakout's narration continues sporadically. It has a stream of consciousness feel, as it is part recollection of the day on which she "counted the butterflies" on the pretty shirt of the woman in front of her before the tragedy struck and part love letter to Abdulwahed. This is a free-ranging one-sided conversation about how they met and what drove her to make this trip so she could be with him in Berlin, mixed with hope for the future and concerns over guilt he might feel. It's full of sharp observations of the modern world - "the cat takes the plane to Berlin, no visa required" - but thoughts of her predicament constantly intrude,  "why do we all scream in English?" "keep your legs moving until you can't feel them any more".

This may not be filmmaking in a traditional sense but Azakout's thoughtful voice-over gives the film a shape to go with its immediacy, the effect of the two together profoundly moving as we feel a tangible connection with this terrible moment in time that goes beyond the headlines to the humans who continue to take this risk in the hopes of realising their dream of a better future.

Reviewed on: 12 Apr 2021
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Purple Sea packshot
Experimental documentary captured as Amel Alzakout hoped for rescue after her migrant boat sank in the Med.

Director: Amel Alzakout, Khaled Abdulwahed

Writer: Khaled Abdulwahed, Amel Alzakout

Year: 2020

Runtime: 67 minutes

Country: Germany


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