On Oct. 28, 2015, Amel Alzakout and 300 other passengers were traveling across the Mediterranean Sea from Syria to Greece on their way to Berlin when their boat began to sink. Alzakout had attached a camera to her wrist with the intention of showing a friend what the journey had been like. The camera was still recording when the boat sank. That footage is used in “Purple Sea,” an hour-long film documenting the harrowing experience.
There is no structured narrative, camera movement or characters. Instead, the camera bobs in and out of the water, showing images of mangled boat equipment and human body parts. The images are accompanied by a monologue, which doesn’t give the film any arc. Instead, it seems to be a series of recollections of memories and conversations from Alzakout’s childhood. The monologue floats in and out, becoming increasingly relevant to what is happening on screen.
Because this footage was not filmed purposefully, every movement of the camera is purely accidental. It certainly feels shaky and gives the film a very claustrophobic and disorientating feel, but it is from this cramped perspective that the film is impactful. “Purple Sea” is unique in that its point of view is not actually from its narrator at all. Instead, its perspective is entirely that of the camera’s. Because Alzakout was not focused on what the camera was picking up, she was able to capture her surroundings in a way that contributes to the uneasiness of the film. The sea is a vast space, but when it is filmed in this manner it does not feel open and free. It feels terrifyingly small.
Most of “Purple Sea” is underwater. Images of life jackets, legs, belts and socks very quickly become unrecognizable — not that you can ever truly forget the context of what you’re watching — but even after only 10 minutes in, it is easy to become disoriented. When the camera emerges from the water, it is a slap back to reality. Simply seeing the sky reminds you what you are really being shown, and then the very brief but tremendous image of the hundred passengers surrounding Alzakout has an even greater effect. When the camera eventually returns underwater, the muffled sounds of children crying and legs kicking as people try to stay afloat serve as reminders of the tragedy that you are watching.
Some criticism of “Purple Sea” maintains that its lack of structure would better serve as an installment in an art museum than presented as a documentary film. But what makes a film a film?
It is hard to imagine someone walking away from watching “Purple Sea” and not being moved in any way. “Purple Sea” is surely a strange and distinctive viewing experience, but it seems to be following the principles of experimental film quite clearly, breaking what viewers would normally expect. It is immersive, intense and perhaps even different from many experimental films. Because of its uniquely accidental camerawork, you feel like a fly on the wall, seeing things that you really shouldn’t be seeing — things that shouldn’t even be occurring in the first place.
This does feel like a movie that would greatly benefit from being viewed in a theater rather than on a computer screen. It is much easier to be distracted when watching a movie at home, especially one of this nature. I really longed to be in a completely dark movie theater with no other distractions. What an experience that would be. Watching “Purple Sea” is quite uncomfortable and painful, but nevertheless, the movie finds power in that discomfort.
Daily Arts Writer Judith Lawrence can be reached at email@example.com.