One of two films by German director Philip Scheffner playing in the Berlinale’s Forum program, Havarie is at once both a stark stylistic experiment and a thoughtful reflection on depictions of Europe’s recent refugee crisis. Taking as its jumping off point footage shot by a tourist aboard a cruise liner showing Algerians refugees attempting to cross the Mediterranean to reach the south of Spain, the strength of Scheffner’s film lies in its unique patterning of this footage with a suggestive aural landscape. Through this arrangement of sound and image, Scheffner offers a document of a specific iteration of the European refugee crisis as well as a reflection on how we ought to think about portraying a crisis that has dominated the media landscape in the past 2-3 years.
According to the film’s press kit, Scheffner had originally shot his own footage for use in a slightly more traditional observational essay on the events that occurred. However, during the film’s production, which started before the worsening of the European refugee situation in late 2014, the director made the decision to discard this footage and replace it with a clip he found on YouTube taken by an Irish tourist named Terry Diamond. Diamond’s clip was shot while he was on board the cruise liner Adventure of the Sea when it came across a dinghy with 13 people on board, whom we learn over the course of the film are Algerian refugees attempting to make the 75km trip across the Mediterranean to the south of Spain. The refugees were told to wait while the Spanish coast guards were called, and Diamond’s footage shows them floating in the water at a short distance from the cruise liner waiting to be rescued.
At the base of Havarie’s construction is a strict formal restriction; its entire image track consists of 3-and-a-half minutes of grainy digital footage slowed down dramatically so that it lasts for the film’s whole 93-minute run-time. Diamond’s original footage is interesting enough in and of itself:1 a single shot, it begins in shaky close up on the dinghy, then it slowly tracks back and pans to reveal the vantage point from which it is being recorded (the cruise liner), before turning back and zooming back in on the dinghy. Havarie’s image track is fully accounted for in this stylistic manipulation, and as far as I can tell, no additional “work” (in the sense of addition or subtraction of creative input) is put in on Scheffner’s part on the film’s images. Scheffner instead creates a quite intricate soundtrack to accompany Diamond’s slow-motion images. We hear a mix of real radio traffic between the Spanish coast guard and the cruise liner, interviews with those who were on board the dinghy and their loved ones, what are most likely dramatised phone conversations between one of the refugees and his wife, and discussions between crew members of a Ukrainian container ship that was out in the water at the same time amongst others. There are even extended excerpts from an interview with Diamond himself, now back in his native Belfast, who discusses both his life at home as a security guard as well as his memories of the incident. Eschewing any kind of expository voice-over, Scheffner instead relies on this associative aural tapestry to reveal both the stories of those involved as well as in some ways to reflect on why they would make such a dangerous decision in attempting to cross the Mediterranean.
The few reviews that have appeared of Havarie have tended to focus on Scheffner’s approach to sound in the film, while in the process speaking very little about the film’s visual qualities.2While I think that Scheffner’s intricate patterning of voices and ambient sounds deserves praise, I found the film’s stark visual track just as striking, both in terms of its unique textures, but also as a way in to thinking about the director’s broader political project in the film. Unfolding at about one frame per second,3 each movement – whether it occurs within the frame or created by the movement of the camera itself – is broken down into a series of jerky, stop-start lurches. This creates the first of a series of curious abstractions, in the sense that the gap between each movement accentuated by the stop-start of the image curtails our feeling of time unfurling freely before the camera. Instead, by accentuating the gaps between each movement (the “holes in time”), these appear as increasingly inadequate images of a moment gone past.
As the film goes on, these images begin to function less and less as an index of a moment in time occurring in space (and we are explicitly informed of both the exact time and date and the geographical co-ordinates of the incident at the start of the film) and more as suggestive textures that could have occurred at any time, in any place. We see muted blues of the sea streaked with somewhat garish yellow tones produced by the slightly dated digital camera pushing in to the limits of its zooming capabilities. The dark tones of the boat and its occupants, who are at times identifiable as bodies performing identifiable gestures (waving, mostly) and sometimes as no more than indistinguishable smudges on a blue background. There’s a quite surreal moment halfway through the film when the amateur cameraman pans to his left and inadvertently points the recording device directly into the sun for a brief moment. Due to this harsh influx of light, for about 10-15 frames, the entire world he captures turns an alien mixture of green streaked with vertical pink lines. Rather than bringing us closer to the event, Scheffner’s slow motion images detach it from a time and place in history; such is the level of abstraction here that they almost take on the representational function of painting (a play of colour approximating an object or idea) as opposed to the one-to-one copy of the moving image.
In a sense, this abstraction is at the core of what I see as Scheffner’s political project in Havarie, which is to intercede with the influx of images created in the recent media focus on the migrant crisis, an attempt to create (in the film’s producer’s words) “an icon for the pictures that appear daily on the news.”4 Without in any way taking away from the specificity of the event he documents, Scheffner links the stories and trials of those making the crossing to thousands of others who have risked deportation, imprisonment or death attempting the same feat in search of a better life.