Friday night, Feb. 17, brought the second film of Wellesley’s 2023 Spanish Portuguese Film Festival. A major tone shift from the previous week’s In the Heights (2021), Cartas Mojadas (2020) or Drowned Letters is a documentary that takes place on the Mediterranean Sea following the refugee crisis. The film is in Spanish, French and Arabic with English subtitles.
In his introduction, professor of Spanish Carlos Ramos described the film as “not the easiest movie.” That would be an understatement. For the horrors endured by its subjects and the movement of the waves which induces a sea-sickness reminiscent of The Blair Witch Project, the documentary requires a strong stomach.
The documentary was shot exquisitely by director and writer Paula Palasio. Much of the film was evocative of viral, heart wrenching photojournalism with incredibly moving shots of boats crammed with bodies, hands reaching out for help, and the menacing waves of the Mediterranean. In fact, the documentary may have been more powerful as a series of photographs. A series of beautiful stills are available on the website and are perhaps more impactful than seeing the movie itself.
The documentary lacked political context, choosing instead to focus on the experience of the refugees with a goal of creating empathy. That goal was certainly met, but in doing so agency was stripped from the refugees painting them more as victims. There were three specific stories that included interviews but each story was quickly dropped in the interest of spending time with the NGO workers aboard the ship Open Arms.
The storyline that seemed most interesting to Palasio was the conflict between the NGO workers and the Libyan military coastguard. Palasio conveniently sorts characters into archetypes– the NGO workers are heroic martyrs, the refugees are hapless victims, and the Libyan coastguard are purely evil. An almost comically evil score plays over the introduction of the Libyan coastguard, feeling vaguely reminiscent of John Williams’ Jaws (1975) theme.
In his final remarks before the beginning of the film, Ramos said to the audience, “I cannot say enjoy, but learn and bring the message to somebody else.” The documentary seemed to be aimed at European and American audiences asking them to care. The shocking, stomach churning, and heart wrenching images try to shame its audience into feeling. The call to action is clear: support the NGOs and oppose xenophobic governments and police forces. Although the horrors depicted certainly make viewers uncomfortable, Palasio allows for the moral certitude of good guys and bad guys. Viewers are given the easy choice to be the good guys. The final frame includes a dedication to “Zoe, and all the babies” encouraging them to grow up and have “the courage to change things.” Ramos stated that the goal of the film was to fight indifference. It certainly does, that but is it too much to ask it to do more? Isn’t fighting indifference the very least that should be done?
The Spanish Portuguese film festival will continue for three more Fridays, featuring the films Cabeza de Negro (2020) – following the Brazilian Black Panther Movement; Miente Miriam (2018) – a story centered on a teenage girl in the Dominican Republic; and Nudo Mixteco (2021) – a family saga that takes place in a rural Mixtec village in Oaxaca, Mexico.