Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

The human flotsam of a global crisis

MIGRANTS / Africa's migrant crisis seen through the lens of a mother to be.
Director: Hara Kaminara
Producer: Julie Freres
Country: Belgium

In Letter to Nikola, Hara Kaminara literally dives into a very personal and intimate study of the human crisis of illegal migrants making the perilous Mediterranean crossing to escape poverty, oppression, and violence in their African or North African homelands.

As a photographer on board an international rescue vessel, the Aquarius (which between 2016 and 2018 when its missions were stopped by laws effectively making aiding refugees at sea were introduced in some southern European countries) rescued more than 29,500 people in danger of drowning, she is at the centre of this story.

Kaminara was on three of those missions and recorded the heart-rending work of rescuing (and sometimes mourning) the human flotsam of a global refugee crisis.

Letter to Nikola, a film by Hara Kaminara
Letter to Nikola, a film by Hara Kaminara

h2>Extreme danger

There have been many films about the extreme dangers that refugees face crossing the quixotic waters of the Mediterranean, often in substandard and overloaded vessels, left to their fates by callous human traffickers. Ever since 2015, when images of a dead toddler, three-year-old Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, shocked the world, news correspondents and documentary filmmakers have focused on the scandalous conditions – and equally, scandalous disregard exhibited by most European governments for refugees – the desperate people face.

Kaminara takes a different approach altogether, more intimate and personal. Though she did not know it during her last mission on the Aquarius, she was already pregnant by her boyfriend, Max Avis, whom she had met while they were both crew members. After returning to port and learning she was pregnant – and her youthful notions of a freewheeling lifestyle faced an abrupt end – she fell into a depression.

Kaminara was on three of those missions and recorded the heart-rending work of rescuing (and sometimes mourning) the human flotsam of a global refugee crisis.

Melting clocks

«Time stopped as if I were in another dimension,» she recalls. Her world became one with Dali’s melting clocks, she records.
Her seafaring days temporarily over, the director decides to turn her time as an expectant mother to good use and make a film based on the still photography she shot and videos (from which sources it is unclear) of the rescues at the sea that the Aquarius was involved in. With her mind, body, and emotions wrapped up in her pregnancy, she decides to use this as the vehicle for telling the story of the refugees through a letter to her daughter, Nikola, growing inside her womb as she assembles the visual material and other elements of the film.

It is not an entirely original approach – other female directors have also employed the journey of pregnancy to tell disparate stories – and there was the danger of it becoming a self-indulgent narrative. But Kaminara manages to avoid the most obvious pitfalls of this device (ultrasound photos of the foetus are used sparingly and only to illustrate how similar the world of an unborn child is to that of refugees at sea in a world of water) and, indeed, we do not even see the eponymous child until ten minutes before the end of this short (50 minutes) documentary.

Kaminara is on much more solid ground when employing her still striking photographs of refugees as they are about to be rescued. The video in the film is often literally choppy, but still images of the same scenes reveal a depth of colour and character missing in the moving images.

There is little in the way of a narrative – Kaminara records images and talks of moments she shared with the refugees: the time she put her camera down when a man just saved from imminent death looked at her intensely. She says she suddenly felt as if she did not have permission to photograph him. At other times striking images of young black men wrapped in gold heat-retaining sheets jump out at the viewer like ancient Ethiopian Christian icons.

There are the barest of references to the international political situation – in Marseilles in the spring of 2019, the director refers to the Aquarius as being stuck in port due to new rules preventing it from operating in the Mediterranean. And the fatal consequences of embarking on journeys across the sea get one brief mention when Alex describes in poetic detail observing a body sinking through the azure light of the water. «We lost one, his colleagues state,» to which Alex can only answer, «Yeah.»

Letter to Nikola, a film by Hara Kaminara
Letter to Nikola, a film by Hara Kaminara

A celebration

Letter to Nikola is essentially a film that celebrates life. Kaminara does not want these desperate people to become statistics (at one point, she is even compelled to ‘rescue’ old photographs of anonymous people from a flea market stall to give them the love they seem to have lost by becoming discarded ephemera). She wants each life to be valued as much as she values the life of her daughter.

It is a film of both haunting and empowering images, desperation, and celebration (as when the rescued sing and dance in joy, having all but accepted that death was their due). It is a film of love and hope, and thus, in its unique way, adds to the growing canon of documentary film on the refugee crisis.

Screening as part of the 25th Ji.hlava International Documentary Film Festival

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Nick Holdsworth
Nick Holdsworth
Our regular critic. Journalist, writer, author. Works mostly from Central and Eastern Europe and Russia.

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