Naomi Shea was at the recent Feminist Film Festival to see Caoimhe Butterly’s The Sea Between Us.
The Sea Between Us, Caoimhe Butterly’s 2016 documentary short, screened on the first day of the Irish Feminist Film Festival at the New Theatre in Temple Bar this November. The opening scene pans in jagged close-up across the ruinous wasteland of thousands upon thousands of discarded life jackets, paradoxically connoting the bodily absence of innumerable lost lives, as well as the people that may have been saved. The Sea Between Us, with a run-time of just under 50 minutes, packs a succinct, intense and necessary punch. With Butterly’s gentle direction, gritty, unpolished cinematography from Marcelo Biglia and documentary cinema’s overarching tendency toward verisimilitude, The Sea Between Us offers what feels like a real-time exposition of a singular instance in the current global refugee crisis, one that achieves an immediacy and an honesty that only the filmic image can provide.
Structured by a series of vignettes set on the shores of Lesbos in Greece, where refugees arrive after their journey across the Aegean Sea, the film juxtaposes scenes of the boats’ safe arrival to land with the aid of volunteers working on the island against interviews with a range of people, refugees and volunteers alike, whose lives have been irrevocably changed by the crisis. The interviews are often staged against the backdrop of the sea, the sound and image of which continually foregrounds the urgency and the peril of the journeys taken across the water.
Butterly offers a testimonial platform for the refugees interviewed, where the watershed in their lives, literal and figurative, finally gives way to a space of hope and security. Many speak of the shattered homes they have fled, the family members they have lost and the livelihoods that have been destroyed, but they speak also of the families and communities they will join in Europe and all speak of the hope and opportunities they can now provide for their children.
An elderly woman from Syria proclaims herself a hero, having raised ten children and her grandchildren, who she can now join in Germany. A sixteen-year-old volunteer from Sao Paolo, who has come to the island for 45 days with her mother, tells of a fourteen-year-old Afghan girl who has fled her home alone. Having described the young girl’s journey, the volunteer says that she does not consider her a victim, but just a girl, like many other girls throughout the world.
Butterly offers insights into the female experience of the crisis that are at once singular and universal. These instances reveal a profound female strength and resilience that is contextualised by the film within the broader celebration of human strength and resilience in all its multifariousness and diversity.
Butterly has offered up an enlivened and pertinent discourse on the refugee crisis that displaces the image of the refugee as helpless and pitiable. The film gently but boldly lays the groundwork for a reappraisal of the crisis as a fundamentally humanitarian issue, unfettered by the specifics of religion, race, gender or age. As the sixteen-year old volunteer succinctly posits, the immediate requirement now is for safe journeys to be provided for all those needing to leave their countries of origin. While the physical and psychological impact of their personal and political histories is irrefutable, the guarantee, and not the arbitrary chance, of a safe journey and arrival is a hopeful and necessary step forward.
However, experiencing The Sea Between Us as part of a film festival is disarming for the passivity that is so inherent within the cinematic experience. The film engenders both a celebratory hope and an intense anger in the audience, but if the film is, after the credits have rolled and the lights come up, simply something that has been seen and emotionally experienced then we have failed as viewers to engage with what cinema of this nature is driving toward; a refusal of things as they are, a refusal to depict the same stories time and time again, because real change must always push beyond the cinematic frame.
The Sea Between Us screened on 18th November as part of the Feminist Film Festival (18 – 20 November 2016)