Purple Sea

Credit: Amel Alzakout, Khaled Abdulwahed

Cathy Brennan

When I think of British film culture in the present moment, the word cosy is pretty fucking far from my mind. To be cosy is to be contented and being in such a state makes one vulnerable. It’s also not very exciting. My holiday wish would be for a new British film culture where screenings become riots, industry assholes are exposed, and institutions crumble into dust. All that may be too much to ask, so for the purposes of this piece I’ll simply wish for more curiosity from film criticism.

In a cocktail-laden conversation with fellow CYZ contributor and denpa queen Ellisha Izumi, she told me about her annual tradition of watching every Best Picture nominee ahead of the Oscars; an oftentimes gruelling task we both agreed. What I came to realise is that I don’t actually watch a lot of the tongue-waggiest films, whether they be blockbusters, award-winners or indie darlings. I still haven’t seen The Shape of Water (2017), nor Top Gun: Maverick (2022). The release of a second Avatar stirs no excitement in my breast, and the fulsome response to Aftersun (2022) has rained off most of my interest. This prompts an existential questioning over my cinephilic credentials. Am I so out of touch? And just like a certain school principal, the conclusion I come to is no, it’s the broadsheets who are wrong.

My critical practice is far better rewarded by seeking out the extraordinary in the margins. If everybody watches the same films, then you’ll get a lot of flat opinions, regardless of whether the thumb directs a film towards the heavens, or condemns it to the dirt. Going off-piste has served me and my friends well. Back in the 2019 edition of London Film Festival (LFF), I was among the early championing cries for Isabel Sandoval’s Lingua Franca (2019). My friend Paul Farrell still talks about his experience of LFF 2018 where he spurned Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria (2018) for the Black Country-set Ray & Liz (2018), and skipped the raucous 8am press screening for The Favourite (2018) to see a firecracker in the form of Diamantino (2018). A crazy-eyed Paul coming up to me that morning in Leicester Square and saying “mate, I’ve just seen Diamantino” remains a cherished memory.

Even as festival programmers take great effort to platform underrepresented voices in filmmaking, that energy isn’t matched when it comes to promoting these films beyond festival audiences. As of writing, Miryam Charles’ unbearably personal Cette Maison (2022) only has 2 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, one from The Guardian and another from Little White Lies. Scratch around and you will find reviews in Sight & Sound and Hackney Citizen, but otherwise this is a mouse squeak from the realm of film criticism. Cette Maison is perhaps one of the finest examples of film as a personal art form to be released this year. It’s a probing expression of Charles’ grief over the horrific death of her teenage cousin Tessa in 2008. Shot on woozy 16mm film, Cette Maison functions as a fictional biography for Tessa as well as a reflection on her family’s Haitian roots. There is a sustained commitment to hybridity in the film by eliminating distinctions between fiction and documentary, the use of both French and Haitian Creole, and even the boundary between memory and fantasy. All this serves to transport you into a specific headspace, submerging you in the grasping thought processes of grief. A genuine work of art.

Another film that’s just as personal is Purple Sea (2020). Directed by Syrian artist Amel Alzakout and Khaled Abdulwahed, the film is comprised of footage taken from a GoPro camera attached to Azakout’s wrist, when the boat she and other refugees were on sank off the coast of Lesbos in 2015. 42 of those refugees died. When I first saw Purple Sea it was being screened as part of the Open City Documentary Festival in September 2020. Around this time there was a shift in British media coverage as months of COVID’s domination of the newscycle gave way to a resurgence of xenophobic reporting on people crossing the English Channel in small boats seeking asylum in the UK. Some have drowned attempting to cross the channel including children. As I write this sentence at midday on 14th December 2022, BBC News is updating on an incident in which at least three people are thought to have died crossing the channel in the early hours of the morning. The reason why people make such a perilous crossing is because their lives are held with such xenophobic indifference by the French and British governments that no safer routes are made available to them.

Purple Sea depicts a rare perspective in our media landscape: that of a refugee during a crossing. A Sky News report from August 2020 demonstrates the mainstream media point of view. A posh white woman calls out to a group of Black men packed onto an inflatable dinghy for comment. On more than one occasion she refers to such sights as “unsettling” without elaboration. The people making the crossing are othered, viewed at a distance. They don’t speak like the reporter whose own voice exudes an imperial authority. A spectatorial relationship is established through such reporting. We, the presumed white British viewer, are able to project whatever we like onto these people. In Purple Sea, Alazakout’s voiceover (recorded after the boat sinking) wonders whether people in a hovering helicopter were filming the disaster and who they saw drowning: “Refugees? Criminals? Victims? Or just numbers? Fuck you all!”

Purple Sea was released on Mubi in August 2021. More desperate people had drowned trying to cross England’s moat. It was a rare and real opportunity for film critics to draw attention to a small film about an ongoing humanitarian crisis that has defined the character of 21st century Europe. Instead, it passed by with next-to-no coverage. One brief review in The Guardian, plus my review for We Love Cinema. In November that year, 27 out of 30 people on an inflatable dinghy, similar to the one seen in that Sky News report, drowned in the English Channel. It was the largest loss of life on the Channel since the International Organization for Migration started collecting data in 2014.

It would be offensive to blame film critics for such a disaster. More extensive coverage of Purple Sea on its release would not have had any impact on this crisis. But I think Purple Sea’s neglect by publications and critics is indicative of an incurious character that is dominant within film culture, one that can only engage with the political realities of our time in superficial “eat the rich, buy our shit”-style sloganeering.

Such short-sightedness is the product of a norm where we as critics try to get ahead of predetermined festival favourites, and pre-selected award show contenders, which leaves truly small films with nobody in their corner. I am just as guilty of this. While Paul was enraptured by Ray and Liz, I subjected myself to Luca Guadagnino’s self-important reimagining of Suspiria, and tried to pretend it was a work worthy of serious consideration because it seemed to be the film of the moment. Of course responsibility shouldn’t fall solely on the shoulders of underpaid critics. Editors for traffic-hungry publications ensure priority is given to films which have the big bucks backing them. PR companies also hold a tighter grip on a film’s narrative as it goes from festival favourite to Letterboxd classic. Critics do not matter in this environment and so there’s little material incentive to seek out the unfamiliar. We therefore get sucked into the money-driven machinations of a film industry that we should keep at arm’s length, and disingenuously puff ourselves up as artistic taste-makers or, dare I say, influencers.

The reluctance to meaningfully engage with the political and emotional dimensions of a film can at times come across as revulsion, instead prioritising some nebulously defined formal quality that make films with little buzz vulnerable to cold disregard. In Girish Shambu’s 2019 manifesto For a New Cinephilia, he characterises the old cinephilia as an insular attitude towards culture that “privileges aesthetic pleasure.” The context in which Alazakout’s footage was captured morally rules out any possibility for aesthetic pleasure. Indeed that’s what makes it such a vital film. However one review of Purple Sea casually dismissed it as an “arthouse trifle.”

Film culture would not be made more cosy if more critics seriously engaged with films so personal they cut right down to the marrow like Cette Maison and Purple Sea. But it would be far less alienating than it is now. I don’t want to read a dozen reviews about how relatable The Worst Person in the World (2021) is to millennial women, or how much of a badass dude James Cameron is for overworking VFX teams to produce his white saviour fantasy land. For Shambu, the new cinephilia should be “fully in contact with its present global moment.” I don’t think film criticism is there yet.

When thinking about this, an experience my mind keeps coming back to is queuing for an early morning press screening at that 2018 edition of LFF. The film was Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk (2018), and it was being held at Picturehouse Central. At the beginning of the year, the cinema staff had called off a strike demanding a living wage because they had been threatened with losing even more pay that the workers could not afford to endure. Waiting outside the cinema on that chilly October morning meant standing over sleeping homeless people. I remember looking around and seeing my fellow critics and cinephiles chirpily chatting away about the films they’d seen, seemingly unconcerned about the people lying next to them or whether such chatter would disturb their sleep. We were eventually let in to watch If Beale Street Could Talk and were moved by the film’s portrayal of racist inequity in 1970s Harlem, while shutting ourselves off from the reality just outside. My Christmas wish is not just for critics to show more curiosity in the films we choose to watch, but also more curiosity in how the films we watch inform our understanding of the world around us.