An ocean trip that whirls into a nightmare, promising Dutch filmmaker Morgan Knibbe’s captivating first feature “Those Who Feel the Fire Burning” uses a restless camera to capture an ongoing catastrophe.
As humanitarian crises escalate in the Middle East and North Africa, the media have extensively reported on cases of refugees undertaking the perilous boat journey over the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. While they tend to focus on statistics, Dutch director Morgan Knibbe opts for a subjective camera to span a spectrum of emotions and individual experiences.
From its opening seconds, “Those Who Feel the Fire Burning” throws us into chaos as a boat carrying families of hopeful migrants plunges into rough waves in the black of the night. While death is presumed for all aboard, one man continues his journey onto European shores as a ghost. Through his spectral omniscience, we are faced with the reality that even those who survive the voyage end up staying adrift on the waves of loss and despair. The waters are harsh — but Europe’s borders can be as hostile.
Although its premise and effervescent style evoke the psychedelic death-trip of Gasper Noé’s “Enter the Void,” the film maintains its grip firmly on the documentary format. The ghost serves as witness to numerous narratives of migrant life: a man collecting metal with a baby cart; a heroin-addicted mother; and the once-hopeful youths who share their growing frustrations with one another.
While the ghost can float through space, its status reflects the experience of entrapment of its fellow voyagers. “Existence and non-existence are both alien to me,” it says, a statement that echoes the newly stateless lives of the migrants who are similarly stuck in limbo. Yet it also embodies us in our inability to interfere. Through the ghost, Knibbe questions the ethics of Europe’s inactions concerning the immigration issue.
Recalling 1964’s “I Am Cuba,” the strength of “Those Who Feel the Fire Burning” lies undoubtedly in the seemingly boundless steadicam camerawork carried out by the director himself. The film’s point of view, occasionally incorporating drone cinematography, is released from the constraints of the human eye and forces open a perspective that asks us to observe in ways previously unforeseen.
The film’s lack of groundedness, however, also brings about its occasional weaknesses. The ghost’s disorientation sometimes fails to address the specificities of individual events. Scenes shot in a Greek harbor town Patras — extracted from Knibbe’s 2010 student film “We Go Europe Insha’Allah” — are edited unmarked alongside footage from the coasts of Italy. Ultimately, these individual moments serve the visual experience and we come to miss the personal connections the film chooses to flee. The voiceover doesn’t help. Stumbling across a young girl the ghost asks, “Is she an angel?” But the tragedy is that she’s a human being and, as the camera wanders off, the encounter becomes a missed one for us.
The film’s best moments emerge when it focuses on a singular event rather than an overarching experience. Then, the film takes on a quieter, yet just as captivating, sway. Lifted almost entirely from his award-winning short “Shipwreck,” a remarkable key sequence captures the aftermath of the shipwreck that left 350 Eritrean migrants dead off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, in October 2013. It communicates the confusion that unfolds after an event, much like Dutch artist Aernout Mik’s staged videos, but its biggest achievement is the way it captures it as a collective experience – the onlookers, border police and the media turn their heads downwards, united in sorrow with the grieving families.
The final sequence pulls the ghost to the ground through “sine-zani,” a ritual involving chest-beating, as it joins the mourning procession in a hopeful testament to the powers of the collective spirit. It’s when the ghost rediscovers its humanity and finds peace that the film is at its most powerful.
“Those Who Feel the Fire Burning” premiered last weekend International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). It is in competition for both IDFA Competition for Feature-Length Documentary and IDFA Competition for Dutch Documentary.