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**_A story about a choice between two equally untenable options_** >_the_ >_go home blacks_ >_refugees_ >_dirty immigrants_ >_asylum seekers_ >_sucking our country dry_ >_niggers with their hands out_ >_they smell strange_ >_savage_ >_messed up their country and now they want_ >_to mess ours up_ >_how do the words_ >_the dirty looks_ >_roll off your backs_ >_maybe because the blow is softer_ >_than a limb torn off_ - Warsan Shire; "Home" (2015) >_It was a rough coast, a coast of high cliffs and pounding waves; nature defended it. But it was__, when all was said and done, one of the coasts of a country that was a lifeboat, and that lifeboat was under siege by people who wanted to be taken on board. She thought to the southern shores of Italy and the boats that came up from the south, crammed with the desperate of North Africa striving to get into Europe. The vessels capsized under their human cargo; there were people in the water, their dream coming to a watery end. How could one turn one's face against all of that? What sort of person would one have to be to sail past?_ - Alexander McCall Smith; _The Novel Habits of Happiness_ (2015) In Homer's _Odyssey_, returning from the Trojan War, Odysseus and his men must pass through a narrow strait, one side of which is home to the six-headed sea monster Scylla, whilst the other is home to Charybdis, an underwater sea monster who causes a whirlpool at the surface capable of swallowing entire ships. Prior to reaching the straits, the goddess Circe advises Odysseus to sail closer to Scylla than Charybdis, telling him, "better by far to lose six men and keep your ship than lose your entire crew". Hoping to somehow outwit both monsters, Odysseus tells his crew about Charybdis, but not Scylla, and ultimately, although they avoid the whirlpool, Scylla eats six of his men. Written by Wolfgang Fischer and Ika Künzel, and directed by Fischer, _Styx_ has nothing to do with Greek mythology (despite its title), but it does present a similar dilemma to the one faced by Odysseus. However, whereas he had to weigh six guaranteed deaths against the possibility of everyone dying, in the film the choice is more clear-cut - a group of people in a boat will die unless you intervene; what do you do? And if the answer sounds obvious, what if the question is contextualised by explaining the people are African refugees trying to reach Europe illegally. And you've been explicitly ordered not to help them. Does this change anything? Should it change anything? These are the tough questions asked by _Styx_, a remarkably apolitical microcosm of white European indifference to the current refugee crisis. This isn't a white saviour narrative, it's not about a racist who realises that blacks are people too, or about a refugee proving valuable even in the face of hatred. It's a parable about a binary choice distilled down to its very essence. Functioning as both a stripped-back documentary-like depiction of reality _and_ an allegory for more existential issues, the film will probably frustrate those looking for something more dramatic, or those who dislike narratives which remain ambiguous on moral questions. However, for everyone else, this is an exceptionally well-mounted and brilliantly acted story about what can happen when the visor of indifference no longer shields our eyes from the truth. Rike (an extraordinary Susanne Wolff) is an emergency doctor in Cologne, fulfilling a lifelong ambition to sail solo from Gibraltar to Ascension Island, a tiny South Atlantic volcanic island about half-way between West Africa and Brazil. A trip of over 5,000 kilometres, Rike is sailing on her 11-meter yacht, the Asa Gray, and her only connection to the outside world is the ship's radio. Longing to see the jungle designed by Charles Darwin and Joseph Dalton Hooker (as Rike describes it, "wild, untouched nature that was actually planned"), she is more than able to handle herself on the ocean, as she demonstrates during a storm between Cape Verde and Mauritania. However, the following morning, Rike finds herself a few hundred feet away from a damaged fishing trawler loaded with refugees, desperately calling for her assistance. As maritime law dictates, she alerts the coastguard, who promises to send help, but who warns her not to approach the trawler. Hours later, with no sign of rescue, Rike moves slightly closer in an effort to get some of her water to its dehydrated passengers, but several of the refugees jump into the water and attempt to swim to her. All but one drowns; a young boy (Gedion Oduor Weseka) whom she hauls onboard in a near-unconscious state. Tending to a nasty wound on his back, she sees from a wrist band that his name is Kingsley, and when he recovers, he uses what little English he has to explain that people on the trawler are sick and dying, and need help, including his elder sister. With the coastguard still promising help that doesn't seem to be coming, Rike is presented with a stark choice; defy the coastguard's orders and intervene, or do nothing. Filmed on the open sea on a working yacht (it probably helped that Wolff is an accomplished sailor), the only parts of the film shot in a controlled environment was the storm, which was shot in a tank in Malta. During the writing of the screenplay, Fischer consulted Sea Watch (a civil search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean), Médecins sans Frontières (an international medical organisation), Borderline Europe (who work on Europe's external borders to provide aid and advice to refugees), and MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a Maltese group who provide aid to refugees across the globe). The film is named after the Styx, the river in Greek mythology that separated the human world and the Underworld. However, in a connotation that many critics seem to have missed, one can only cross Styx if one can pay Charon, the ferryman, for passage. If one cannot pay, one's soul must wander the shores for a hundred years. So, only those privileged enough to afford it can (legally) travel to the next life, an obvious comment on the economic plight of refugees. Before looking at the film's politics, it's worth mentioning its extraordinary craft. It opens with a shot of Barbary macaques apparently in the wild, before a cut reveals they are living side by side with humans on Gibraltar's urbanised coastline. It's a nicely presented visual metaphor, setting the allegorical tone for what's to come; apart from the obvious Darwinian "survival of the fittest" allusion, it presents a jungle thriving right beside a city built by people, just as Rike plans to travel to a jungle built by people. The film then cuts to a car crash in Cologne. Within moments, a fleet of emergency vehicles are on the scene, one of whom is Rike. However, the scene does far more than introduce her character; here we have an almost immediate outpouring of aid for those in need, in stark contrast to what will happen on the ocean, where responsibility is shirked and rescue is never guaranteed. Again, it's a very simple scene, with the metaphorical connotations not in any way laboured or foregrounded. Director of photography Benedict Neuenfels's work is exemplary throughout, imbuing the ocean with the most beautiful blue you can imagine. Prior to the encounter with the refugees, the film recalls the soothing minimalism of J.C. Chandor's All is Lost (2013), and it's difficult not to settle into the peacefulness which Rike herself so clearly enjoys. Later, the economy of the visual language is more taut, making important thematic and narrative points with very simple set-ups. For example, high elevation drone shots show the vastness of the ocean, and just how completely isolated Rike and the refugees are (James Cameron's Titanic (1997) features a similar shot for the same reason). These shots also speak to the film's dispassionate observational style that remains non-judgmental and almost entirely apolitical, with events presented in an informational documentarian manner, as if they are really happening. This is in direct contrast to Gianfranco Rosi's similarly themed 2016 documentary Fuocoammare, which presents real events as if staged and acted. Thematically, Styx covers a lot of ground, without being too explicit about anything. For example, it's never mentioned that Rike's journey to a manmade forest is interrupted by a manmade conflict. Similarly, as an emergency physician, Rike knows the first rule of such circumstances: always ensure your own safety first. This is never spelt out, but it becomes important when she realises she can't sail over to the trawler and offload the refugees, as they would overwhelm the Asa Gray. Of course, the circumstances seem tailor-made for a white saviour narrative - a privileged white European comes to the aid of a group of imperilled African refugees, deifying bureaucratic inaction, and in the process teaches us all about the importance of compassion and not to take our privileges for granted. Even the storm scenes seem to be setting up for this, depicting Rike as capable and strong, someone who can handle herself in a crisis. Fischer, however, is not interested in such a story, and Rike is no more a hero than the average person on the street. Indeed, she doesn't have much in the way of a character arc; once she spots the refugees, she does relatively little except watch in horror, with her most salient characteristic being indecision. Quite opposite to the clichéd white saviour narrative this could have become, the longer Rike does nothing, the more she comes to embody European indecision and irresponsibility; however well-intentioned it may be, the "someone else will do something" attitude that allows us to be outraged without having to act. A crucial couple of scenes in this respect come either side of the storm. In the first, Rike is contacted by a nearby freighter who warns about the impending storm and tells her to give them a shout if she needs anything the following day. Bearing in mind that the freighter would have room for ten times as many people as are in the trawler, Rike contacts them, but the immediately uncomfortable radio operator tells her, "our employer has a strict policy [of non-intervention] in such cases. I can't risk my job", to which Rike asserts "you are obliged to." But of course, he isn't obliged to, no more than she is. This exchange introduces a further element into the narrative - economic considerations. As the second scene of the film makes clear, in European cities, thousands of Euros and hundreds of people are immediately deployed to help car crash victims. Here in the ocean, however, when the lives of over one hundred are in danger, people bicker about economic bottom-lines and responsibility is passed from one group to the next, with no one willing (or able) take charge. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the film, however, is how quiet it is on the refugee crisis itself. Fischer is not concerned with finger-wagging pieties or didactic moralising, he's interested only in showing us what happens, lifting the veil, letting us come to our own conclusions regarding the morality of it all. The refugee crisis as a global situation is never even mentioned, nor do we ever learn where the trawler has come from or where it was going; such details are incidental to the individuals in the film. And this is a key point; individuals are not responsible for making the crisis, but we are responsible for how that crisis is playing out. Kingsley himself is certainly a metonym for refugees in general, but he is also a terrified young boy to whom politics are irrelevant in the face of possibly having to watch his sister die. In terms of problems, there are a couple, but they are relatively minor. For example, to a certain extent, the disembodied voice of the coastguard is something of a token villain (even if his warnings not to approach the trawler make perfect sense), and it wouldn't have taken a huge amount to have given him just a touch more in the way of compassion. The simple binary choice faced by Rike is also perhaps a little too binary; clear-cut in a philosophy textbook kind of way. And the relationship between Rike (privileged white European) and Kingsley (suffering African refugee) is a touch over-schematised. The biggest problem, however, and for some this won't be a problem at all, is the decided lack of thrills. I've seen a couple of people talk about how the film would have worked better if the last act had more of a rescue thriller vibe to it. I agree with that. Just like I think the last act of Frank Darabont's The Green Mile (1999) would have been much better had Tom Hanks staged a guard-led raid to break Michael Clarke Duncan out of prison. Okay, I'm being facetious, but the point is, had this turned into some kind of maritime action movie, it would have completely undermined everything it was trying to accomplish. Yes, the complete lack of anything resembling excitement will probably bother some, as will the inaction of the main character, but such lack of kinetics is much more akin to the reality Fischer is trying to depict, where seemingly unimportant events (such as Rike sunbathing) are given almost as much time as the more dramatic moments. Tackling how the issue of indifference may not be as clear-cut as it seems on paper, Styx is a film that asks difficult moral questions, without providing much in the way of answers, avoiding didacticism, and for the most part, remaining apolitical. As Rike's journey to her own idea of paradise intersects the journey of migrants travelling to what they hope will prove to be their paradise, the film presents not a story about a white saviour, but a story about white indecision. Forcing the audience to weigh the same alternatives that Rike must weigh, Styx comes across as both heartfelt and non-judgemental. With the Asa Gray serving as a microcosm for white Europe's reaction to incoming refugees, and the attendant social, economic and political dilemmas, Fischer acknowledges that this crisis throws up exceptionally difficult questions. The answers to which are up to us as individuals and as a society.
'Styx' reminds us of the plight of refugees who risk everything in the ocean, and the damage caused by bureaucracy and by-the-book policy. A work of nail-biting drama that is not only superbly executed but exceedingly timely, it is a film that deserves to be screened widely in Australia so it can be seen by all. - Jake Watt Read Jake's full article... https://www.maketheswitch.com.au/article/review-styx-an-intense-nautical-morality-tale Head to https://www.maketheswitch.com.au/germanfilmfest for more German Film Festival reviews.