BY Esther Buss in Culture Digest | 19 FEB 16

Postcard from the 66th Berlinale

Philip Scheffner’s film Havarie is a self-aware representation of the way Europe is dealing with the refugee crisis

BY Esther Buss in Culture Digest | 19 FEB 16

Philip Scheffner, Havarie, 2016. Courtesy 66th Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin

‘It’s reality TV. It doesn’t get more real’, we hear at one point during Philip Scheffner’s film Havarie (Shipwreck, 2016) which recently premiered at the 66th Berlin International Film Festival. The reference to reality television here can be read as a helpless gesture in the face of an unbearable scene. Originally, the narrator, Terry Diamond, uses these words to describe his work as a security guard in Belfast. In Havarie, however, the clip is played as he is standing on the deck of the cruise ship Adventure of the Seas looking out at a sinking inflatable dinghy with 13 people on board.

As the film starts we read ‘37º 28.6´N 0º3.8´E’ – coordinates in the Mediterranean sea. For the next 90 minutes, an expanse of blue fills the screen, at its centre is a dark patch that is readily identified as a refugee boat. The boat shifts between the centre and the edges of the frame, comes into focus (people wave) and becomes blurred again. Often, abrupt camera movements create phantom-like afterimages: a boat, followed by its shadow.

Havarie is a self-aware representation of the way Europe is dealing with the current refugee crisis, the portrayal of which usually oscillates between two extremes: a narrow focus on individuals and their personal dramas or, much more often, images of anonymous, helpless masses on overflowing boats and in crowded camps. As in Scheffner’s previous works The Halfmoon Files (2007), Der Tag des Spatzen (Day of the Sparrow, 2010) and Revision (2012), the source material for Havarie is a fragment of found material stripped of its contextual frame. Scheffner found the amateur footage, shot by the Irish tourist Terry Diamond on 14 September 2012, on YouTube and stretched the 3:36-minute clip to 90 minutes – the amount of time the two vessels spent side-by-side, after the cruise liner had contacted Spanish sea rescue services.

Stretching a sequence into near indecipherable visual noise is not Scheffner’s only response to the immediacy and authenticity of such real life images (similarly harnessed by Moritz Siebert and Estephan Wagner in their film Les Sauteurs made in collaboration with thee Malayan refugee Abou Bakar Sidibé, also showing at this year’s Biennale). He also disconnects sound and image, as some of the speakers heard in the voiceover have nothing to do with the images on screen. Rhim and Abdallah Benhamou, for example, who were separated by the Mediterranean and who tell separately of their lives – she in Paris, he in Algeria – and the future they hope to spend together. Abdallah could be one of the refugees on the boat. He has made the trip from Algeria to Spain in an inflatable dinghy many times in the past, only to be sent back each time. 

Although some of voices we hear refer to entirely different geopolitical times and places (the conflict in Ireland, the crisis in Ukraine), other speakers are directly linked to the unfolding scene: Diamond; the captain of the sea rescue vessel Salvamar Mimosa; a couple working on the Adventure of the Seas. Crucially, the space of the film is rendered larger and denser by the background soundtrack: street noise, a kettle, ticking clocks, a car door slamming shut, motorbikes, telephone conversations. At certain moments, image and sound coincide: we hear the radio transmissions between the cruise ship, the headquarters in the Spanish port of Cartagena, a container ship and a helicopter circling overhead.

In the middle of the film the image that seemed to have got caught in a loop is torn from its moorings: a pan to the right and to the left reveals the position of the cameraperson on the upper deck of the cruise ship: people, suntanned, stand at the railings, watching. During this brief shot, we hear the ship’s muzak at full blast, the film’s radius narrows to the rarified world of the cruise liner. This world appears hyper-present and monstrous, until it vanishes into the abstractions of a backlit scene. Afterwards, the camera moves back to the blue expanse, returning to its unsettling default position.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

Esther Buss works as a freelance film and art critic in Berlin.