Michael Sicinski on Havarie
Havarie plays Saturday, January 14, as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2017.
Philip Scheffner’s Havarie is ostensibly a documentary. After all, its maker is a documentarian whose previous works, though formally reflexive, have operated in a much more recognizable nonfiction cinematic idiom. (Scheffner’s 2012 Revision was featured in a previous edition of First Look, and he has a second film, And-Ek Ges . . . , making the festival rounds.) Even though Scheffner has chosen to make a film exploring the human toll of the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, Havarie has less in common with Gianfranco Rosi’s recent, similarly themed Fire at Sea than Derek Jarman’s infamous 1993 film Blue. Whereas Fire at Sea could be characterized as dialectical, Havarie is a kind of vertical time study of one very brief event, radically elongated and paired with a soundtrack comprised of radio communications, unattributed interviews, and rescue professionals discussing technical matters such as latitude and longitude positions. The screen, apart from some video scan lines and the usually-but-not-always present image of a refugee boat carrying 13 men, is little more than a blue rectangle, the Mediterranean Sea on a particularly sunny day. Havarie has a running time of 93 minutes.
What sort of film is this? Its subject matter, which a viewer can discern almost immediately, is one of the greatest crises currently facing our world, with hundreds of thousands risking their lives to attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea in a desperate effort to reach Europe from the Middle East and Africa. Given this subject matter, we might expect an edifying, expository, humanist approach. The fact that Scheffner instead presents us with a kind of motion study, something more suited to the avant-garde, is our first indication that Havarie has a somewhat different agenda.
One of the startling things about Scheffner’s film is the company it appears to keep. Cinephiles likely to encounter Havarie may well be familiar with the motion study genre, or other analytical modes of experimental cinema. One of the classics of this mode, Ken Jacobs’s Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969), is a frame-by-frame, practically grain-by-grain examination of a projected print of the early Edison film of the same title. Jacobs invites his viewers to slow down and really see this silent one-reeler from multiple angles, providing the cinematic equivalent of a Cubist canvas. But aside from the dense, awkward mise-en-scène of the Edison film, which itself invites scrutiny, there is no obvious sociopolitical reason for Jacobs to have chosen Tom, Tom over another early silent. In some respects, Ernie Gehr’s film Eureka (1974) displays more specific commitment to its source material, given that its “cattle catcher” ride through San Francisco on a streetcar is imbued with the knowledge that we are seeing the city before the great quake of 1906. In Eureka,Gehr seems to evoke historical content in order to draw our attention to the attenuation of form. By contrast, those current film artists who also work in the analytical mode—Bill Morrison, Péter Forgács, and the team of Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi—have placed virtually all their faith in the significance of content, making films about important historical periods or events, often slowing down archival footage in order to emphasize certain people, places, and time-bound gestures. Most recently, Romanian narrative filmmaker Corneliu Porumboiu tried his hand at a similar project with his archival film The Second Game (2014), although he chose not to step-print or otherwise slow the footage.
On first glance, Havarie might resemble these projects, but there is a key distinction. Those filmmakers worked with early movies and archival footage to either exhibit certain aspects of cinematic affect and cognition or excavate historical meanings they consider lost to the vagaries of time. By contrast, Havarie is absolutely contemporary. Scheffner’s source material, a clip shot from a cellphone, which was in turn posted on YouTube, is not selected in order to produce a feeling of distance or historical attenuation. So why does Havarie stretch an approximately three-minute clip to 90 minutes?
Scheffner’s extension of the cellphone clip has many effects, and only some of them seem to pertain to this historicizing impulse described above. There is no doubt that a certain gravity and momentousness is injected into the shot of the refugees on the boat, especially since certain failures in the handheld photography are transformed into creative, even dramatic gestures with the expansive step-printing. If we watched at normal speed, the boat would appear to bob and swing out of the image as the videographer shakes or repositions himself. Slowed down to the Scheffner’s new rate of projection—one full minute of screen time for every second of the original video—there is more significant attention paid to the frame itself as a container for “action,” even though Havarie is primarily a document of waiting.
When the boat slowly drifts out of the frame, we wonder whether it will drift back in again, or if the “story” of these 13 asylum-seekers, as far as we’re concerned, is over. Off-screen space exists only in our memory, as the potential of a return. But this principle of cinema takes on heightened meaning in Havarie for a few reasons. For one thing, this boat and its waving occupants are our only real reference within Scheffner’s frame. The choppy blue sea is the dominant image throughout Havarie, so much so that even when the refugees are on screen, they are dwarfed by the Mediterranean, which expands in all directions around them. Not for nothing does the Spanish Maritime Rescue Center keep reiterating the exact coordinate points for the craft, to the second. Far too many makeshift crafts such as these are never retrieved, their occupants lost to the sea.
Did the videographer just shake the phone, or have the refugees actually been lost? Have they capsized or sunk? And if this is the case, what does Scheffner expect us to make of this sky-blue visual field, whose stippled beauty belies its deadly potential? Again, Scheffner is working within a certain avant-garde idiom, but charging it with an unexpected valence. The ocean has been a popular subject for filmmakers as diverse as Stan Brakhage, David Gatten, Rebecca Meyers, and Peter Hutton. But even when their work has taken full account of the sea’s destructive potential (e.g., Brakhage’s 2000 The God of Day Had Gone Down Upon Him; Meyers’s 2010 Blue Mantle), it has not examined possible impending death in the manner that Havarie does.
Just as Scheffner revises the motion-study film to provide an analytical view of our global present, rather than the distant past, he also adopts the tropes of the seascape in order to pose a vital sociopolitical question. Why are we so fascinated by the ocean as a subject for art? Western aesthetic theory since Kant would tell us that we are enraptured by the ocean because its apparent limitlessness creates for us the fear and awe associated with the Sublime. But Havarie’s fixed frame and excruciating slowness defiantly impose limits upon the Mediterranean. It becomes a hurdle, a border, a possible site of death. And while as per Kant, the threat of death, too, can evoke the Sublime, we cannot avoid the fact that this threat of death is not evenly distributed across humanity. Only the weakest and most defenseless among us—those 13 souls struggling for survival on that motorboat—are expected to face the enormity of the ocean in this manner.
At Havarie’s midpoint, Scheffner reveals exactly where the original cellphone video comes from. Irishman Terry Diamond, the man who shot the original footage and posted it to YouTube, executes a bravura double-pan (left, then right, covering more than 180 degrees). In so doing, Diamond innocently exposes the power relations that rule the sea, and that helped create the refugee crisis in the first place. To Diamond’s credit, he looks away only for a moment before rejoining the human drama unfolding before him. This is perhaps most notable because Diamond, along with dozens of others, is watching the refugees from the safety of the cruise ship “Adventure of the Seas.” So among its other virtues, Havarie may well be an extended document of one man’s ideological enlightenment. Diamond offers three minutes of his luxury vacation to play the part of a global witness.