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Drowning Witness: Suffering and Subjectivity in Das Purpurmeer

This is one piece in a collection of 10 film reviews submitted by this year’s New Wave Jury members at Cornwall Film Festival 2021. The collection tackles recent films that stood out as radical works of filmmaking. You can read the other reviews here.

I am unsure if a review of Das Purpurmeer (2020) is ethically warrantable. I am wary that these words may veil and confine this more-than-just-observational documentary. Directed by Khaled Abdulwahed and Amel Alzakout, this sixty-minute witness of live suffering, screaming, fear, drowning, and death. Das Purpurmeer is radical cinema of paramount importance. Its witness calls for action. Justice must be sought for the asylum seekers affected by border violence, systematic xenophobia, and unlawful killings in the strife of refugee crises.

There is the possibility of noisy narcissism in stating how positively or negatively one feels about the film. However, I have sensed from other reviews that the way to discuss the film as a work of art is to address its combination of poetic narration and the non-artful, uncontrollable way the GoPro camera captures the horrific scenes. In this regard, I understand how some viewers may perceive this film as individualising the fatal accidents of the refugee crisis, as Amel waxes her own journey, reflections on her life up to this point, voiced over one long scene of collective suffering.

Yet, while I agree that the poetic voice over personalizes the traumatic event, I don't think that this is some moral failing on the part of the filmmaker. The process of separation between art and artist is unlikely since the same artist who constructed this work from this traumatic event also experienced it in person. It wasn't a designed event, nor was it something they exploited as a bystander - they were there in the middle of it, holding a presumably equal position with every other person treading the water. Therefore, in the filmmaker's decision to provide poetic narration over the footage, how can we question or blame them? This is their way of contextualising the trauma they suffered, a way of ordering and expressing their own subjective experience of it.

Although confined to Amel's experience and limited by the capabilities of the GoPro, this approach also achieves the effect of representing each person there by suggesting that they each had their own life, their own friends or family, their own history, love, goals, fears and humanity to think about while they faced these terrifying moments. The real existence of their headspace, their thoughts and emotions, is much more palpable here than in any cold, detached statistic. Indeed, it may not be a perfect representation if one subjects it to the same ethical quotas as other documentary forms, but as a work of art, as an artefact of human suffering, does not fit into that subjection. It is best read and understood outside of most typical decodings of documentary, and should be taken for the impervious facts, personal and political, of it. Its witness, subjective and real, must be felt and left lodged in the mind of the viewer.

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