On 3rd October 2013, a boat carrying 500 Eritrean refugees sank off the coast of Lampadusa in Italy. Tragically, over 360 people drowned, and survivors were often faced with the terrible task of mourning multiple fatalities. It is the people facing this sheer wall of grief that Shipwreck (Morgan Knibbe, Netherlands, 2014) attempts to document. Somehow fast-moving newbie Knibbe mustered the courage to direct, film and edit these heart-rending scenes, and the results are extremely compelling.
Having already premiered at important festivals like the 67th Locarno Film Festival, Shipwreck finally had its Nottingham premiere last week. Interestingly however, this film doesn’t begin as you might expect. Instead we almost fade in aurally, hearing waves around us before we see anything. This then conjure images in your head, but they are images which this short almost immediately confounds. And you decide staggeringly quickly that Shipwreck is going to be gripping.
We slide into a world of bright, colourful close-ups, but it isn’t immediately apparent what we see. Slowly you realise you’re shifting round a graveyard of shattered, splintered ships. And in this haunting scene of vibrant primary colours lingers Abraham, one of the tragedy’s grief-stricken survivors. Then we hear this man’s difficult story offered up to us through a soft, poetic, whispering Arabic voice-over.
So Shipwreck doesn’t document the side of aspiration and hope to migration. But its look at immigration definitely helped NAFN achieve its aim to rehumanise the people who UKIP seem intent on villanising. In fact, Knibbe’s look at migration is intensely moving. The director cuts between scenes of loud, all-consuming, and demonstrative lamentation and the passive, well-meaning sympathy of the Italian authorities. Merged together these two very human reactions create a truly poignant portrait.
Except Shipwreck doesn’t ever simply cut between the two. The camera careens throughout the film: it up-ends and swirls before match cutting to another scene of blackness. On the big screen this looks like somebody punch-drunk on emotion spinning a steady cam in an upright position, and the resulting fainting sense of being overwhelmed is genuinely exceptional. This technique is so effective that the impression of movement and being amongst the crowd that it gives become almost unbearable, and it really makes you sympathise with the intensity of grief we see.
Technique and content also match perfectly in the short’s structure, sound and visuals. It has a close, grumbling, understated soundtrack, which is filled with the ominous groans from Lampadusa’s dockyard. Colours also seem fuller, like some kind of beautifully accentuated digital footage, capturing perfectly the event’s hellish intensity. The victims’ seemingly unending grief is similarly well captured, because the short cyclically loops back to the touching ruminations of Abraham (to whom the short is partly dedicated).
But Shipwreck’s awareness of the fine line it treads between documentation and potential exploitation of these victims’ suffering is also commendable. Knibbe foregrounds this issue by including images of the local media flocking round like vultures, leaving this process of documentation open to viewers’ judgement. And as such a considered, well-made short, Shipwreck definitely played a central role in the discussion NAFN wanted to have about migration. Even outside this theme, however, this is a must-see short!