Avery F. Gordon

Keeping Visual Contact: Philip Scheffner’s HAVARIE (2015)
Berlin, February 2016

HAVARIE begins with maritime coordinates 37º 28.6´N 000º3.8´E and the faint sound of ticking. The coordinates tell us where the small boat we see is positioned. In French, a young woman describes standing at the window watching something happening to her father that frightens her. She is twelve. It involves two men and a car. She is watching and cannot move to help him. At a distance, we are watching a small boat filled with people floating in the clear calm blue sea, the sun shining brightly. It will take another forty-five minutes before the camera turns and, for the first time, we will see the place, the point of view, from which we’ve been watching the small boat. The situation, the mise en scène, is clearer now but the turn of the camera produces a major distortion in the image, a dramatic shift in color and tone as if a storm has arisen, before we return to the calm blue sea.  It’s a kind of warning to the viewer. A great distance remains between you and the men in the boat. Minimal contact will be made but the distance will not be closed; the ambiguities will not be resolved.

In September 2012, the cruise ship Adventures of the Sea encountered thirteen Algerian men in a rubber dinghy on their way to Spain. They contacted the Spanish Coast Guard requesting permission to bring the men aboard the ship.  They were asked to wait for the air and sea rescue team, which would arrive to take the men to a prison from whence they would be deported to Algeria a month or so later. The cruise ship waited for 90 minutes and to the cheers of some of the passengers sent out a small boat of their own to bring water and food to the men floating at sea. The wait was filmed by passengers on the port side of the cruise ship and it is one of these very short films that forms the visual track of Scheffner’s film. 

The dingy waits and the cruise ship waits, keeping visual contact with each other. We watch them watching each other, waiting too. The sea is calm and blue and the sun is shining. Sometimes it is very hard to see the boat: it recedes and blurs and then returns to view. The men in the boat wait for at least 90 minutes, maybe more, we’re not sure. We wait for 90 minutes. Calmly and methodically, with that combination of critical precision, political intelligence, and impeccable care for the people involved that characterizes all of Philip Scheffner’s films, HAVARIE forces you to wait, to experience a different temporality than the newstime in which an image such as this is normally presented.

Wait and listen. You must listen very carefully. In fact, at some point, you realize that you can stop watching but you can’t stop listening. 

I’m at the window.
What did you do today?
I don’t have legal papers
I’d like to stay here
Destiny – it’s all blocked
I fell in love with her
It’s my destiny
Keep visual contact
the full moon at night as we were about to leave
I loved the dolphins the sea was calm the dolphins played
news about my visa
action now
William Wallace is sailing the high seas yaah!
the sea is dangerous
ghosts live in deserted places the haunt the sea
Harraga is our motto
the sky and the water
oh Barcelona
peaceful fisherman
good watch
there’s no peace
come sooner, please
permanent state of waiting
life at sea thirty one years
the boat is very far away
I heard people going from Libya died
spirits still roaming
let’s sing again
good morning message from the bridge
not too many stars
around 40 minutes
port by port
what is its position
can’t remember their faces
foot injury
out of nowhere
a good night is when nothing happens
on edge always helplessness anger
proceed on your voyage after the helicopter
you don’t need to fear the ones who escape
this is what life should be
human beings in this
start to try to imagine
drastic enough
image awakens memories
3 days at sea calm breakdown rain
the one in the blue jacket prison Spain the one always singing from Constantine in front unwell
died stayed yellow jacket also prison orphan impoverished
the Spanish mountains wanted to stop he needs to get to Europe
arrested landing ashore the Barcelona song again
cooperation thank you
continue on voyage


What do you hear? Water running, someone making coffee or tea, car traffic, sirens, phones ringing, car doors opening, crowds at a café, waves, motors, hands clapping, coughing, rain. Keeping visual contact with the ship we hear, as one expects in a Scheffner film, the sound of birds and above all Rhim and Abdallah’s sighs and breath. The voices are very close to my ear, creating an intimacy that’s almost too much to bear. I start to catch my breath in return.

What do you hear? The working life of those who work at sea and the sea as a collective escape route to make something – love, job, health, ideas, decisions, peace--work better than it is where you are immobilized and enclosed by the borders states erect to keep us from being free of them.

HAVARIE creates a poetic language for Fortress Europe that’s very precise and very beautiful. For me, its beauty derives from that precision, from an exquisite attention to the fate of those thirteen men in the boat and the thousands like them who cross the Mediterranean every year, hundreds of whom die. What’s remarkable about HAVARIE is that it gives this attention without your ever learning the names of those thirteen men and without the help of a narrator, someone to connect the parts, to help you make a story of it all. How it does so is hard to explain, especially if you haven’t seen the film yet. Part of the explanation lies in the poetic language of the film itself, the composition of the visual and aural landscapes, which, like all of Scheffner’s films, forces you to think about what are you watching and why it is being presented to you as it is. The thinking demanded in this film is harder than in Scheffner’s previous films, not because the subject matter is more difficult but because you have to do it more on your own. Perhaps that’s as it should be in a situation in which one keeps visual contact but always at a distance, a distance whose coordinates are to be found not in the sea but in those socio-political conditions that make the sea a perilous escape route from there to you.