Fleeing to Europe - A Personal Story

The Syrian couple Amel El Zakout and Khaled Abdulwahed met in exile in Turkey. While Khaled was able to move on to Berlin legally, the way to Europe remained blocked for Amel. In the end she decided to make her way to Europe with smugglers across the Mediterranean Sea. In their film “Purple Sea”, the couple processed this experience and the stereotypes prevailing in Europe. The documentary, which was funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung, celebrates its world premiere at the Berlinale 2020. In our interview, the filmmakers talk about the stirring process behind “Purple Sea”.

Regina Mennig | February 2020
Beine unter Wasser
Amel El Zakout/Khaled Abdulwahed

The film “Purple Sea” focuses on the filmmaker's escape across the Mediterranean - from unusual perspectives

Amel, “Purple Sea” is about your escape to Europe. What was the most important aspect you wanted to express in the film?

Amel: I wanted to express my own perspective of the incident, of that hard and difficult experience. I didn’t want to be seen or dealt with from another perspective. I didn’t want to be seen as a group, to be narrowed down to being a refugee or a migrant or a number. We are individuals.

Visually, the film focuses on what happened after your boat had sunk between the Turkish Coast and the Greek island of Lesbos. A great part of the film takes place under the surface of the water. Why?

Amel: I started to film from the very beginning in Istanbul. I filmed the smuggler’s office and the road trip to the coast. It was an unusual trip for me, I wanted to keep this memory and to be occupied with something during the trip. I also wanted to share it with Khaled later. I never though of making a film. I filmed on the boat before it sank. In the water, the small waterproof camera kept filming. It was tied to my wrist and took pictures from perspectives that were different from mine.

Focusing on the part under the water was both an artistic and a personal decision. I didn’t want to see and show myself in such a difficult situation, I didn’t want to be seen as a victim. I think this also applies to the other people who were in the water. I don’t have the right to show them just because I was there with them. There is lots of images and footage coming from the media without thinking, without respecting how other people would be seen or would like to be seen.

Die Gewinner des Filmförderpreises 2018 der Robert Bosch Stiftung auf der Bühne mit Blumen und Mikrofon / Bildnachweis: David Außerhofer
David Außerhofer

The film team

Amel El Zakout and Khaled Abdulwahed won the 2018 Film Prize of the Robert Bosch Stiftung with the project idea to document Amel's experience on the way to Europe (see photo left). The Film Prize is aimed at young filmmakers from the Arab world and Germany and awarded every year as part of Berlinale Talents. Amel El Zakout and Khaled Abdulwahed realized their documentary “Purple Sea” with the Berlin based production company Pong.

Khaled, you were already in Germany when Amel decided to flee across the Mediterranean Sea. How was it for you to see her footage?

Khaled: It took me almost one year until I was able to watch the footage. It was terrifying to see the panic, the screams, how people try to hold onto something in the sea water. But I also felt disconnected from these images. Somehow I rejected to see them, to deal with them, to imagine that Amel had really been there. At some point I tried to picture myself in this situation. It was impossible. And that was the big struggle at the beginning.

Amel: I didn’t wait so long to see the footage. Although it was hard, I was curious to know what the camera had filmed and to compare it with my memories. But at first it was like seeing without remembering, because me and the camera had different perspectives. Later I started to really connect our perspectives… somehow, that was therapeutic for me. But it also made me very angry to see myself. I didn’t want to, I couldn’t believe that this was me. It felt like watching somebody else.

Amel had to accept herself within this tragedy, whereas I had to deal with my distance to it.

Why did you decide to make a film on this experience?

Amel: Primarily, I felt the urge to talk about what happened and to absorb it. In this, I went through different phases. The question at the beginning was who to blame. First, I contacted a lawyer to see if there were any legal means we could use. Then, we contacted Forensic Architecture [editor’s comment: research agency that undertakes investigations into cases of human rights violations].

After a while, I felt that it is not my responsibility to investigate what happened and why we had to stay in the water for more than two hours. In the end, creating a film turned out to be my personal way to deal with what had happened – it is something very individual. The film is not about the incident itself, it’s about the experience of somebody who was in the water.

How was the process of making this film for you individually and as a couple and film team?

Khaled: At the beginning, it was a tremendous burden. How could we deal with all the details of this tragedy and the people who were involved? Amel had to face that experience, relive being in the water, accept herself within this tragedy. Whereas I had to deal with my absence, my distance and the question of how I can connect the footage to the experience of someone I am in love with.

Working on this together was a great experience, also in collaboration with Pong who are not only producers but part of this story. We know the team members since Amel began filming, they understand what happened, on Amel’s level, on my level, on the shared level we have. This is how we step by step and slowly overcame those big challenges.