The Living Ghosts Of The Night: A Story At The Gates Of Europe

in 76th Locarno International Film Festival

by Jean Perret

Melilla, a Spanish enclave on the coast of Morocco, is the gateway to the sea for thousands of migrants.

This is the story of a thousand climbs and falls, hope and despair, stubbornness and exhaustion. It’s a whole mankind of young men, children as young as 14 and teenagers under 20, occupying a dense and closed territory – open towards the sea. From the very first contrasting black-and-white images of the night penetrated only by the glow of streetlights and police surveillance spotlights, the setting becomes a constitutive element of the drama of Obscure Night – Goodbye Here, Anywhere (Nuit obscure – Au revoir ici, n’importe où) by Sylvain George. 

This 183-minute film was the only documentary proposed among the 17 works in the international competition in Locarno, and it was honoured with a special mention, the only one awarded by the International Jury. The first part of this trilogy, Obscure Night – Wild Leaves – the Burning Ones, the Obstinate (Nuit obscure, feuilles sauvages – Les brûlants, les obstinés, 2022), which lasted 265 minutes, was presented out of competition last year, and this is deeply regrettable, given that Sylvain George’s cinematographic gesture is part of contemporary creation that goes beyond the established academic genres (fiction, documentary, experimental, essay). The third, much shorter instalment is due to be screened in the coming months.

Walls of fortifications; at their bottom, powerful waves crash and die in snow-white foam, high fences demarcating the port area from that of the town, barbed wire heightening the fences added to the urban grid, slopes with sharpened rocks and bundled with wires – those are the scenes of the never-ending spectacle of these young people, who never stop thwarting repressive strategies and dissuasive logic.

We are in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, the homeland of General Franco and one of the bases of the Foreign Legion. This town on the Moroccan coast is a major port for the trade between Africa and Europe, where thousands of migrants from sub-Saharan and North Africa arrive and try desperately to clandestinely board a ship bound for Spain, hidden in lorries and containers. Their aim is to cross over to the other side: ‘to burn the sea’, as the migrants say.

Their adventure is shared by Sylvain George, who filmed these young people at regular intervals over a period of more than three years. Alone, small camera in hand, equipped with a single microphone, George walked and walked, climbed up and down obstacles, waited – among them, with them. Moving, balancing, and unbalancing in this territory whose margins, interstices and gaps he discovers through wires bristling with sharp blades. He is committed to tell the story of the painful confrontation between bodies, faces and the city of stone and iron in a dramaturgical structure devoid of any dramatic effect. Wounds leave their mark on the skin, arrests and beatings are part of everyday experience, and traumatic stories circulate, such as that of the young man whose head was ripped off by a coastguard boat.

The film is remarkably well edited, with a rhythmic pattern of short, often on-axis shots. This practice does not rush the gestures or actions, but rather densifies their unfolding and recurrence. The fragmentation of time creates a filmic temporality that frees this work from any naturalism. The work incorporates slow motion, frozen images, and views tending towards abstraction: the sea and its calm, tumultuous, deceptive waters. Obscure Night – Goodbye Here, Anywhere thus broadens its scope to an impressive realism with poetic and political dimensions rich with metaphorical meanings. In an article published in a French version of the online magazine, I reported on the first part of this triptych and referred to such great film editors as Artavazd Peleshian and Alexander Dovzhenko (whom George speaks of with admiration) on the one hand, and as Alan Berliner and Jonas Mekas on the other. Approaches to be continued!

The dramaturgical breath of Obscure Night – Goodbye Here, Anywhere is scanted by fades to black in the image and the fading out of sound. The repetition of this punctuation is at the heart of the film’s narrative drive. But rather than signifying the same thing, repetition here has the virtue, through diffraction effects, of deepening our understanding of this never-ending and immense narrative. As a spectator, we hear a silence in the depths of which the screams, cries and even the laughter of the migrants stigmatise the stultified consciousness of the migration policies on Europe’s doorstep.

And the will, the courage can sometimes defy all danger, as a young man, one of the main characters of the film, stares at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris: he stares at us as well, eye to eye.


Jean Perret
Edited by Birgit Beumers