Dissolving into the sea: Cinematic migrants and the problem of agency

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English Language and Literature

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Postcolonial Studies


Films about irregular migration to Europe that centre on the Mediterranean sea crossing often unwittingly strengthen the regime of migrant (in)visibility furthered by sensationalist media, which include topoi of shipwrecks, dramatic rescues, and body bags. Such films’ imagery of the Mediterranean as a metaphorical space of transformation into living death, actual death, or paradisiacal life also suggests that the identity of the migrant is indeterminable, zombie-like, even monstrous. Finally, focusing on the sea as central to the migrant journey makes invisible the broader geopolitical context, especially the continuing neocolonial relationship between the global North and the global South. My essay examines the political implications of focusing on migrant bodies in the middle of the sea, especially in sympathetic accounts which portray the Mediterranean as a gothic space where the perished yet ghostly migrants haunt Europe like revenants of its colonial past. Gianfranco Rosi’s acclaimed docudrama Fire at Sea (2016) exemplifies this approach. I analyse it in the context of similar visual representations before briefly contrasting it with Želimir Žilnik’s Logbook Serbistan (2015), which situates migrants in a broader geopolitical context and portrays them as non-idealised people with complex backgrounds, political opinions, and agency.

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