Open City Documentary Festival 2020 – Focus: Purple Sea, A Boundless Expanse


Kevin B Lee examines Purple Sea, exploring its political potency, its poetic qualities, and its sense of presence and presentness. Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed’s Purple Sea is available in Block 2 (Sat 12th Sept midday – Tue 15th Sept midnight BST).

As should be the case with cinema, what comes to mind first are images and sounds. The burning orange of life-vests dipped in Mediterranean blue. Emergency whistles and helpless screams, mixed with splashing sounds that are oddly pleasant, reminiscent of bathing somehow. A close-up shows a water-wrinkled hand that dangles somewhere between alive and dead. What doesn’t immediately register is that the hand should be holding the camera that’s filming it. This camera—tethered as it is to its owner’s wrist—records unsupervised. Immersed in a boundless expanse, it produces an immersive, floating vision of terrifying beauty.

The hand and the camera belong to Syrian artist Amel Alzakout, who in 2015 boarded an overcrowded boat with over 300 other migrants seeking passage from Turkey to Greece. The subsequent shipwreck led to forty-three deaths in what became the deadliest migration-related maritime incident of that year. The resulting footage forms the basis for Purple Sea, co-directed by Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed. Alzakout recorded her journey to share with her partner Abdulwahed upon their reunion in Europe, but the shipwreck footage proved difficult for each to process. In one interview Abdulwahed describes his pain at witnessing her near-death from a helpless distance. For Alzakout, it was not only painful to relive the trauma, but to see herself unwittingly captured as an image of helplessness, one that could fall into sensationalist mainstream portrayals of migrants as victims. Missing from such depictions are the internal lives of these figures, the universe of thoughts and experiences contained within each of them. How to make this image of herself hers again?

Alzakout answers by employing a voiceover narration that composes a space of consciousness within the footage, alternately resisting and augmenting its sensational qualities. Regarding the image of her body struggling to stay afloat, her mind searches through memory and observation to bring the incident into the full context of her life: a childhood experience of near-drowning; her life and family in Syria that she left behind; the stages of her odyssey both before and after the shipwreck. Rather than diminish the raw force of the viewing experience, the narration intensifies the sense of presentness. As the incident releases Alzakout’s verbal stream of deeply individual recollections, the camera drifts amidst a sea of floating bodies, each the vessel for countless other individual accounts of what it is to be human. 

The uniqueness of Purple Sea becomes more vivid when compared to another standout non-fiction work based on the same material. In Shipwreck at the Threshold of Europe, Lesvos, Aegean Sea, 28 October 2015, human rights research agency Forensic Architecture presents Alzakout’s footage on a timeline to show how bureaucratic delays in EU rescue operations contributed to the deaths. This short is an impressive feat of videographic research in the service of bringing justice to scores of tragic deaths. Whilst these two works use the same footage, they deliver different kinds of insights. Whether these insights are poetic or analytical, they are both of extraordinary depth. While Forensic Architecture’s piece appeals to the revelatory power of visual evidence, Purple Sea challenges the immediacy of the visual by plumbing the depths of its protagonist’s subjectivity. Merging sensory rawness with lyrical reflection, it discovers both beauty and dignity in the tragedy from which it is born.

Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, video essayist and media scholar based in Germany.

Tickets for Purple Sea are on sale now.